Tales that divide and conquer, with prejudice

Tales that divide and conquer, with prejudice

Sloganeering and false offence drown genuine debate.

WHEN German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited recession-hit Portugal in November, she was greeted by demonstrators wielding placards that read Wir sind das Volk (''We are the people''), a protest slogan from communist East Germany. Sadly, a suite of signs of a very different kind came to define the day: images of ''Adolf Merkel'' and slogans railing at ''Auschterity''.

In divided Egypt, President Mohammed Mursi similarly was depicted wearing the swastika armband. Each case was a potent reminder of the words of Israeli author Jacobo Timerman who, during his country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, said:

When certain critics accuse us of being Nazis, they do [Ariel Sharon] a great service. Truly, we're not Nazis. But the accusation serves the defence minister to discredit the accusers and serves him to claim his innocence. Yet we are not innocent.

Without doubt, 2012 was a year of jangling discords, when our willingness to offend and capacity to take offence steadily ate away at civic life. Too many people stood on their sensitivities, and so the discussions that societies must have did not even get started.

In the US presidential election, the undoubted political contest of the year, talk of a 2000-style cliffhanger proved unfounded as Barack Obama cruised home. His opponent, Mitt Romney, blamed ''gifts'' to women and minorities for his defeat, prompting Louisiana's Republican governor to suggest his party needed to cut down on ''offensive, bizarre comments''. ''If you want voters to like you,'' he said, ''the first thing you've got to do is like them.''

Syria's revolutionaries chose first a Kurd and then a Christian to lead them, finally settling instead on a man from the majority, Sunni religious leader Moaz al-Khatib, and with him came international recognition. But in Syria, as in Egypt, the failure of majorities to convince others of their intentions had lethal results. For Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the challenge is to grasp that a democratic mandate, however handsome, is not enough to set a new constitutional course; a national consensus is also required.


Movements and regimes all over the world seem to have decided that the best leverage comes from declaring that you have never been so insulted. Perhaps the most depressing example was the furore over a film, Innocence of Muslims, a piece of work so execrable that it seemed more likely to discredit its maker than to inflict the slightest harm on the name of the prophet Muhammad. But that was to reckon without those Islamist cells whose entire claim to relevance rests upon stoking a sense of outrage - and for whom the clip's content or reach was never the issue. They professed to be ''offended'', and so they lashed out. Others were ''offended'' by them, and so the sickening carousel kept turning.

From Cambodia and Ethiopia to Venezuela and Sri Lanka, governments took aim at non-governmental organisations whose work promoting human rights or democracy was deemed corrosive of ''national values''.

In Russia, where feminist punks Pussy Riot were jailed for insulting the Orthodox church, NGOs receiving funding from abroad now must register as ''foreign agents''.

Responding to US criticism of proposed restrictions on NGOs in Israel, prime ministerial adviser Ron Dermer asked how Americans might react ''if [antiwar group] Code Pink was funded by the French''. Never mind that France is a US ally; Dermer deftly chose the nation many Americans feel is most foreign to them.

Seeing themselves as foreigners in their own land, some Obama opponents spoke of emigrating to Australia under the delusion that this country was led by a Christian who gave no quarter to ''whining'' Muslims. Or consider the tale told by French opposition leader Jean-Francois Cope of the boy ostensibly prevented from eating his pain au chocolat by fasting Muslims. These stories lean on prejudices; they divide and classify us.

What is most lamentable about such fables, however, is not that they may offend but that they corrode our ability to communicate. In 2013, let us resolve to dispense with sloganeering and work instead to a just and equitable world, one that listens, seeks solutions and debates without rancour.

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