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June 5, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Polarising Opinions

There is something very easy about extremities: it’s the comfort that comes with treating “right” and “wrong” as if they are unquestionable, unshakable truths. It’s the relief of being able to point the finger at someone else, identify the problem, the enemy as “other” and, in doing so, absolve oneself of blame. It feels good to be right.
Currently, there is a global climate of extreme polarisation that is so tense, so prominent, it often feels palpable. I find it near impossible to read the news without recoiling in anger, or at the very least, rolling my eyes. It is easy to hate things. It is easy to hate Trump, to hate the people he stands for and the people who voted him into power. Just as it is easy to blame all the problems of a nation on immigrants, or to depict “The Chinese” as the Machiavellian puppet-masters behind Auckland’s housing crisis. It is easy to blame poverty on the impoverished, because in doing so, we the privileged get to wipe our hands clean. This is what makes polarised and extremist opinions so dangerous yet so appealing; looking outwards and pointing to others as the problem impedes one’s ability to look inwards and acknowledge that you yourself might actually be part of the problem.
When we engage in these polarised “debates”, when we buy into sensationalist articles, we sacrifice two vital components of productive discussion: we give up nuance, and we give up our empathy. There is a lot to lose here.
When the Aziz Ansari story broke this year, waving the flag of the Me Too movement, instead of feeling galvanised I felt unsettled. Babe.net had been onto something — within the drama and controversy of it all, there was a really important and powerful discourse that could have been had. A conversation about the more subtle and insidious ways that rape culture and gendered power dynamics work their way into sexual encounters. Rape does not exist in a vacuum — there is a culture behind it that has permeated itself into countless facets of our lives. I cannot think of a woman I know who has managed to navigate life and sex and emerge unscathed. For the trans and non-binary community, the threat of danger is even more apparent.
However, this is not the conversation that happened. Prodded by Babe.net, (who seemed more focused on inciting rage and controversy than providing insight) the story went viral and polarised many. Should we hate Ansari? Have feminists gone too far? People were angry, Babe.net got clicks, job done. And amid all the anger we lost the discussion we needed to have.We were too busy having an argument instead.
And here’s the thing: we need these difficult, more nuanced conversations to happen, if we want our society to improve. Engaging in polarised discourse, where we give up empathy and nuance, renders us incapable of self-reflection and change.
Let me make an assumption: most people, when called outright a bigot, misogynist, or racist, would feel defensive and deny it. These terms are used in a way which conjures up an image of evil, terrible people that lurk insidiously in our communities. I doubt many people think of themselves this way, and that is the problem. People cannot identify with demonised labels.
Marginalised groups absolutely have the right to call out shitty behaviour when they see it. But the rest of society needs to start thinking and talking about what these concepts — racism, sexism, transphobia (and the list goes on) — actually mean, and the more mundane forms they may take. You might be a perfectly nice person, but you can still be racist. You might be friendly and approachable, a good colleague, friend, or family member. Doesn’t mean you’re incapable of committing sexual assault.
I know this may have sounded inflammatory or off-topic, but what I’m trying to say, is that polarised discourse, where we categorically vilify those with an “opposing” view, does not lead to progress or change. A productive dialogue is one where we listen to others, think about what we are saying, and are unafraid to question our own views. Let’s start talking with a willingness to learn — where the goal is not to be right, but to better understand another’s perspective. Instead of laughing at Trump, think about why people voted for him (“cause they’re stupid” doesn’t count). Even if you feel you are right, you’ll only be able to change another’s opinion if you understand where they are coming from. If we do not have these conversations, we lose the chance for the self-reflection that is necessary for real change to occur.
So I’m calling bullshit. I think we’re better than this, or at least that we need to be better than this. We cannot let ourselves be stuck in an endless cycle of blame and hatred, skirting responsibility at the cost of our empathy for others. If this is how we remain, then at the end of the day, we will all lose.

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