Understanding arguments

THIS last week, the National Unity Action Plan was launched.

At first glance, there did not seem to be much contained that was groundbreaking, interesting, or likely to have any real impact on the fabric of communal relations in Malaysia.

I suppose the document read somewhat like the type of essays we had to write in secondary school, where we memorised all the trendy phrases (“keruntuhan akhlak” and “meningkatkan kesedaran” seem particularly memorable from my time in school) and made sure to insert them into our composition.

In reality, such cliched phrases and “safe” words can do little to undo the subtle and not so subtle racism that is woven deep into Malaysian society.

One little column is also unlikely to achieve much either, but I will nonetheless try to explore ways of tackling this issue that go beyond the superficial.

In talking about unity, it may help for us to better understand disunity.

I have written at length about how the way Malaysia’s political landscape evolved contributed to an embedding of racial divisions and race-based thinking in both institutional culture and social fabric.

In contrast to this historical approach, I thought I’d speak a little today on a phenomenon that is a bit more contemporary, which evolved alongside the increasing dominance of social media and the Internet in the space of public discourse.

There are arguments that are about a meeting of minds and being open-hearted about finding the best solution together; and then there are arguments which – when you really get right down to it – are about feeling attacked, and attacking in return.

The anonymous, polarising, and echo-chambering nature of the Internet and social media seems in particular to exacerbate and amplify the latter type of argument (the pandemic seems to be making short fuses even shorter too).

I will describe what I observe to be the centres of gravity regarding how these arguments tend to play out across segments of society in general, and then will use two examples to try and illustrate the point involving halal-only delivery riders, and the DidikTV English competency controversy.

This is obviously an oversimplification, but let us imagine four people along a spectrum of opinion (just to avoid pronoun confusion, let us pretend they are all male), with person A representing one extreme opinion, and person Z representing the complete opposite opinion.

Technically, the other two more “reasonable” people in this spectrum example would best be identified as person F and T (representing the 25% and 75% point of the alphabet spectrum, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s call them B and Y.

In the following examples, A and Z are the people who are always spouting the most virulent, angry, hate filled comments. They can’t stand each other, and use the most confrontational, denigrating, and vicious words against each other.

B leans towards A’s opinions, and Y leans towards Z’s, but both B and Y are a little more moderate and reasonable about the issue, and are generally more amenable to compromise, given the right conditions.

When it comes to public discourse however, the sensationalist, attention-catching views of A and Z end up being the centres of gravity that tend to dictate the narrative discourse. Their voices drown out B and Y’s voices.

Basically, B ends up hearing almost only what the extremist Z is saying, and Y only ends up hearing what the extremist A is saying.

B then feels attacked, and feels compelled to attack both Y and Z, thinking there is little difference between them; Y feels and acts the same way towards both A and B.

In a different context, having B and Y sitting down calmly at a table might have resulted in a good conversation, discovery of common ground, and a compromise being achieved.

Instead, B and Y are radicalised against each other, and are manipulated into seeing each other as an implacable enemy.

We often hear how people talk past one another, instead of talking to one another.

On the Internet, this is even more pronounced, because people literally make posts that are sent out into the world at large, directed to a general audience that is more imagined than real, rather than specific, real people.

I have friends who frequently tweet criticisms without naming their target, and I often feel: are they talking about me? Sometimes logic dictates that there is only a 10% chance that I am the intended target, but emotionally, some part of me still feels attacked.

We should never underestimate the reactionary emotions of someone who feels attacked. On the Internet and in our WhatsApp groups – especially in the era of cancel culture – we seem to feel that way more and more often.

Let’s look at the specific examples, starting with the recently launched food delivery service that only caters to halal food, which appears to have emerged from a reluctance from some food delivery riders to deliver non-halal food.

In this scenario, A might feel insulted “on behalf of” all non-Muslims, and sees this refusal to deliver non-halal food as racist and divisive. Z might believe that this is the natural right of Muslims, who should never ever be forced to be anywhere near non-halal food.

Both sides scream and radicalise their respective bases.

If B and Y sat together, perhaps they would agree that existing food delivery companies could simply develop a feature which allowed riders to state whether they were willing to deliver non-halal food or not, potentially making everyone happy.

In the DidikTV controversy, a clip emerged of a teacher presenting about the human reproductive system in less than stellar English.

A might rage at the appalling quality of English in this country, and take this as a reflection of poor quality of teachers throughout the government. Z might see this as an attack on teachers, and maybe on an entire ethnic community, and believe that advocates of English are colonial-worshipping racist snobs.

Both sides scream and radicalise their respective bases.

If B and Y sat together, perhaps they would agree that the ministry and authorities involved should have invested more resources into empowering and preparing teachers for this challenging platform, and taken a more objective look at which mediums of instruction were most suitable.

If we are serious about pursuing national unity, we need to better recognise and understand the dynamics of these public controversies. In doing so, we may not only do a better job of understanding arguments, we may also start being able to have healthy, mutually understanding arguments.

It is most likely in the interests of each of us personally as well as the nation as a whole, to explore taking a step back from kneejerk reactions, and being open to the possibility that the loudest, most provocative voices are not necessarily the most representative ones. It’s definitely difficult to do, and it can be challenging to not feel constantly attacked; but our ability to exercise this tiny bit of good faith may do more for national unity than any other textbook blueprint.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR) and is a huge believer in the freedom of the press. He tweets @NatAsasi and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

The views expressed here are solely his own.

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