When it comes to difficult subjects, polarising complicated details seems an efficient way to manage our thoughts and responses, but there are many potentially dangerous repercussions to doing so.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACTS OF SIMPLIFIED DECISIONS
Even once we’ve moved out of the controlled scenarios of childhood into the adult world, we are still programmed to identify and support the ‘right’ side in any conflict.
This is harmless in the schoolyard, and jolly good fun at the football stadium. But in every other domain, there are many potentially dangerous repercussions:
1. Subjectively analysing any major issue as being comprised of just two diametrically opposed sides, then justifying one side while demonising the other does not give due recognition to life’s complexities. As a result, we can neglect others’ livelihood, their emotional, mental and physical well-being, and other basic human rights.
2. The politics we favour will affect the world we bequeath to the next generation, and the resources we choose to allocate for their education and other needs.
3. Polarised thinking misaligns our moral compass. In 2021, asylum seekers fleeing to the UK from their home countries tragically drowned in the English Channel. Journalist Ed McConnell wrote about readers who had coldly responded to the original report with a laughing emoji. They had never met the victims, yet had felt justified in reducing their complex economic and sociological issues to a simple conflict between Us and Them.
4. The gateway to destructive action against any group or community is the willingness to allow Us-Them thinking to take root in our minds. Law professor Gregory Stanton explains: From the mentality that ‘they’ are simply the opposite of ‘us’ can spring the idea that it is acceptable to ignore their views, treat ‘them’ worse, and wish (or even enact) harm upon ‘them’. The situation is worsened by echo chambers, both online and off, that affirm our mental polarities.
5. We become unaware of our own inconsistencies. Most people would rightly denounce the concepts of racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Yet, in the same breath, many would also condemn discussion about LGBTQ+ issues, voting rights, tax breaks and so on as threats to societal values or personal safety. This attitude can quickly escalate into diverse types of centrism based on race, religion, culture and more.
All this is not to say that we should not stay true to vital principles. Some things must be universally condemned, such as terrorist violence.
Even so, public discourse ought to include broader, deeper discussion about related or even seemingly peripheral issues. Surely, to fight terrorism effectively, we need to understand the root causes that let it fester.
While we unequivocally denounce terrorism, we should also have reasoned conversations to agree on shared values and rules (both legal and secular) without being suspected of moral compromise or appeasement.
As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently pointed out, there are laws and principles to be followed even when responding to unlawful violence.
Us-Them thinking enables incremental animosity, aided and exacerbated by the confusing cacophony of misinformation competing for our attention.
As the Israel-Hamas conflict rages on, TikTok, for instance, has drawn widespread criticism for failing to remove posts spreading falsities about alleged atrocities.
CNN has been falsely accused of staging a scenario when reporting about the same conflict. Ironically, at the same time, a CNN reporter has apologised for inadvertently passing on misinformation about heinous brutalities against babies, as claimed then denied by the very same government sources.
How easy it is to weaponise misinformation and ignorance.
Locally, we have also seen WhatsApp exhortations that cunningly reference religion to urge readers to “stay vigilant”. The insinuated subtext appears to be that some groups in Singaporean society are to guard against other groups with different backgrounds and beliefs – creating distrust through methods akin to hate speech.
The legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron spoke of hate speech as “an environmental threat to social peace … a slow-acting poison”. Like a single smoke-spewing car adds to air pollution at large, each unkind or spiteful message contributes bit by bit to a massive problem.
Let us maintain social peace as a public good by staying vigilant against disinformation, against divisive thoughts and actions, and against anyone’s urging to destroy or do harm.
Stay vigilant against Us-Them thinking. It was to this end that Singapore’s Chief Rabbi and Mufti reaffirmed solidarity between their different communities.
Stay vigilant for opportunities to help those who need help. First and last, do no harm. Better yet, do good.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Ong Siow Heng is Professor of Communication Management Education at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University. Benjamin Joshua Ong is Assistant Professor of Law at the Yong Pung How School of Law at Singapore Management University.