‘Culture wars’: The Trump effect

IN retrospect, I think a Malaysianised version of one of the most lasting legacies of Donald Trump could be surmised as: “Saya white supremacist, saya ok.”

I’m not going to write a rant about how and why white supremacy is bad, though it obviously is.

Instead, I’d like to try and reflect a little on what is sometimes termed the "culture wars" in America, and the evolving dynamics of what is often termed "political correctness".

Moral history is quite interesting. America’s founding fathers featured many slaveowners. A hundred years later, a civil war was fought to end slavery. Some hundred years later after that, Martin Luther King Jr. was at the forefront of a civil rights movement.

And today (or until quite recently at least), the word "racist" is one that seems to be universally reviled. Even the most right-wing Republican might admit to all sorts of bigoted views, but it’s almost impossible that even the most racist of them would openly say: “I’m a racist”.

Here at home, someone comically tried to prove that the Kedah Menteri Besar was not racist by posting a photo of him being on a badminton doubles team with what was presumably a Chinese gentleman.

The internet has been the dominant platform for public discourse for some time now - a replacement, some saw, for the mainstream media.

Somewhat ironically, it turns out that there is now probably such a thing as the "mainstream Internet" - and man, it is a warzone out there.

This mainstream Internet has helped bring down many giants. Harvey Weinstein is a good example of someone who the facts showed 100% deserved to be brought down.

There were many others like him. Then there were more ambiguous cases, one example being perhaps the case of former US senator Al Franken (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/29/the-case-of-al-franken).

In my research for this article, I came across this list of "10 biggest celebrity cancellations of 2020" (https://www.thethings.com/cancelled-celebrities-2020/). There’s nothing scientific about this list, but it was interesting to note how some cases were deeply rooted in established facts, while others may have been the exact opposite.

I imagine there will be multiple books eventually published about "cancel culture".

I’m not qualified or equipped to go into it in detail, but in the context of Trump and America, I get the sense that while a culture of political correctness has had a profound effect on what is considered acceptable to say out loud in public, it has not had a similarly profound effect on what people feel in their hearts and minds.

I don’t imagine this to be a novel or wholly original observation, but I feel we should pay careful attention to the manner in which Trump likely recognised that deep undercurrents of racism still existed in the hearts of those who would never in a million years dream of describing themselves as racists.

He likely recognised that there were perhaps millions of Americans who were tired of being scolded because airing their true views in public would get them all sorts of public backlash.

The internetisation of public discourse has meant that such scoldings are becoming an increasingly embedded part of our culture.

Many on the far ends of each spectrum cheer when one of their own delivers what is perceived to be some sort of scathing "smackdown" to the other side.

These "smackdowns" are usually filled with self-righteous anger, positioned as representing an oppressed group, and are generally composed (consciously or subconsciously) with one’s supporters as the intended audience.

People scold other people to consolidate their own tribe, and in the hopes of shaming others in public.

I would venture to guess that those who study education may feel that an education process that is centred on shaming a child is unlikely to end well.

Adults are no different. Sometimes, public shaming works - especially against those in high positions of power and influence, when the clearly demonstrable, proven facts are against them.

Other times however, those who feel publicly shamed merely retreat into their own enclaves, where they can surround themselves with others who are "just like them", and where they can form their own silo of a mutually supportive community where they plot their revenge - in extreme cases, in very violent ways.

As one of the points of this article is that self-righteously lecturing people online is not effective, I of course am not seeking to lecture any individual over what to do or how they should talk.

I am only writing in hopes that amidst all the shouting coming from the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are others who do value civilised, genuine discourse and who believe in carefully ascertaining facts and always hearing every side are important things.

Those of us in this space can often feel like a minority silo of our own. After all, by nature we do not shout, so we are often less heard.

My own beliefs would probably be generally described as left-leaning and progressive. That said, the way I see some right-wingers being attacked suggests that sometimes, extremists on either side have more in common with each other than they do with the moderates on either side.

There are undoubtedly times in this world where we need to bang the tables, face the tear gas, and rise up in protest. Many of us have been there and done that.

But if we truly want to convince others, and spread values we believe in and/or build on common ground, then we should be aware of how screaming at others or constantly trying to shame them is counterproductive.

I often feel like the pendulum of history is liable to swing violently from one extreme to another. Some may have expected the amplitudes of those swings to reduce, while others may be observing that they are increasing.

I’m not wise enough to predict how it will play out, but I do believe that if we collectively want to badly enough, we can work on shaping our culture and institutions in such a way as to manage our differences positively, and encourage discourse that is productive rather than divisive.

It’s a tall order, and we’d have to fight against a lot of entrenched cultures, resistance to innovation, as well as a lot of vested interests, but I refuse to believe it is beyond our capabilities.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He tweets @NatAsasi and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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culture , racism , Nathaniel Tan , Donald Trump


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