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Noble: Disrespectfully disagreeing; why polarisation hurts our democracy

Plural societies, such as ours, are prone to tensions and to pretend that it is a new thing is folly. What is new is the disrespectful disagreement we now witness as we moved from social polarisation (living in different communities) to issue polarisation (where we cannot agree on the essentials of living together).

The recent Express/SBS poll points to ethnicity, a powerful predictor of behaviour, as the polarising force. This is troubling since ethnicity is wrapped up in notions of kinship, which can lead to nepotism, which disrupts democracy.

The different value systems and life experiences of our two major ethnic groups, confined by geography and the constitution, appear to be leading to intense ‘war’ since political power determines the distribution of resources. We have witnessed the unequal distribution of our national resources in the last two decades. One would anticipate that the fight would become even more intense as our economy struggles.

We have a decision to make: do we wish to leave this tendency to war unchecked or should we embrace our imperfect nation’s ‘rainbow’ nature—where every creed and race could find an equal place? Are we comfortable in taking sides, just to ensure ‘our side’ wins instead of confronting crass acts designed to destroy our institutions and the tolerance we have enjoyed? The failure of the NAR and the People’s Partnership experiments demonstrates that there are no shortcuts.

Polarisation affects judgment and emotions, engendering uncivil behaviour over the slightest difference. It causes us not to approach matters of national importance with the serious analyses they deserve, but to behave as though we are supporters of rival sports teams. The operating thesis—the cruder we are towards the ‘opponents’ the more we rouse our unthinking bases—destroys our deliberative democracy. Words matter. We cannot castigate fellow professionals, be contemptuous toward each other and still expect the country to be governable. It does not work so.

The spin doctors, on both sides, have adopted a ‘devil take the hindmost’ approach. They incite like silly schoolboys in the yard, spoiling for every fight. The media are themselves trapped, relying on talking heads from the two major political parties as though they represent public opinion. The Express/SBS poll shows clearly that chatter is not representative of any coherent national position. For example, the poll reports that 44% of our population cannot reach an opinion on the most seminal issue of our country, the judiciary. Why? Because the ‘spin’ is so dizzying, we no longer know who or what to believe.

While the Mixed/Other ethnic group may have sided with the East Indians on several issues, it strongly supported Dr Rowley (50%) and the government (41%). People, seized with the reality that they must live here, and who look for the good of the country, yearn for a saner discourse and are continuously disappointed by the rancour that polarises.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago citizens march for racial unity on 12 March 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

The young, shut out from participating, have turned their backs, as per the Express/SBS poll. This may be welcome news for the Machiavellian spin doctors, whose sole interests are to win the next election, but it represents an existential threat for the society. Let us never forget that 1970 was the product of dissatisfied educated youths, who felt that they could not get a fair share in a depressed economy. It is time for us to stop the selfish squabbling and focus on what is needed to create a future.

We must apply facts to our situation in order to raise the level of dialogue. The media and we must focus on solutions instead of bashing each other. Let us give our young people hope for the future.

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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  1. Earl Best

    Provocative in the extreme. I would say that if you have more than two brain cells, you can’t read this and not find food for thought.

    Unfortunately, the more than two brain cells requirement eliminates quite a few.

    And I can’t help but wonder whether you don’t do Wired868 a disservice by omitting ‘conventional’ from this sentence: The media are themselves trapped, relying on talking heads from the two major political parties as though they represent public opinion.