The Either/Or Mindset

History is witness to numerous cataclysmic events that should shame us as human beings – except that we don’t seem to learn any lesson from history

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Intolerance, discrimination, polarization, majoritarianism/minorityism, left/right, communism/capitalism – all these are terms that express one underlying idea: either one or the other but not both together or an acceptable combination of both, in other words viable coexistence.

Intolerance in the US. GettyImages

It is the atavistic either/or mindset that may have made sense as a survival mechanism at the dawn of mankind, but ought to have lost relevance as societies evolved and political systems developed and became more sophisticated, and people(s) started to become more accommodating of each other. Improvement along these lines occurred in leaps and bounds, perhaps accelerated to some extent after the formation of the United Nations post World War II. However, somewhere along this bumpy way we now appear to have lost our…way. Indeed, there is even more divisiveness that is now being seen, in some places in an overt and explosive manner, in others more subtly pushed or perpetrated using all kinds of subterfuges.

The term that we are hearing more often is polarization. Perhaps it is derived from the expression ‘poles apart’ – like the north and south poles. Or is the contemporary version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ As an online source explains, this is said of two things which are too different to ever be agreeable or harmonious. Originally this meant that if you learn young that East is East and West is West, you won’t waste time trying to convert people to your views. Let alone be willing to understand their views.

I remember several years back a friend telling me that common sense tells us that a human being will always first protect self and family, then will come relatives, tribe/clan or community, society, country and last the world.

As far as tribes are concerned, I got a first-hand exposure to its reality nearly 30 years ago in Botswana. I was part of a delegation of Commonwealth Fellows who were on a tour of Southern Africa, and the first country scheduled to be visited was Botswana. I have very good memories of that visit, and one of them was the tour of the Bagatla Museum in south Botswana. Our well-read and superb guide explained to us in exquisite – sometimes gory — details about how, several decades earlier, the tribe that was currently occupying that region had fought fierce battles with and driven away the Bagatla tribe across the border: there was simply no question of the two tribes living together. ‘It was either them or us,’ concluded the guide. The museum displayed spears and other deadly implements used.

Our delegation comprised some Africans from other countries, and I wonder what their reaction would have been. Obviously, though, Botswana had by then moved far ahead of that modus non-vivendi to become one the most developed countries under the enlightened leadership of President Masire. He was the first African leader to voluntarily step down after ruling for 18 years, the second one being Nelson Mandela after only one term. Incidentally, Botswana is also where, in a village deep inside, we were shown ancient rock paintings by a World War II veteran in the British army whose good friend was a Mauritian and he was genuinely overjoyed to meet another one almost 50 years later. Small world indeed!

The most brazen and globally decried example of intolerance and prejudice of the 20th century was of course the apartheid system in South Africa, which came to an end in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was democratically elected as President. But then came the Hutu-Tutsi conflagration in Rwanda. Fortunately, there has been reconciliation and the new dispensation that has taken over has turned around the situation to make of Rwanda a model of development in this region, leaving us far behind in many respects. We should stop our breast thumping.

Fundamentally all these terms listed above mean only one thing: that there are people who harbour deep prejudices against other people wherever they are on the basis of religion or ideology, and will go to any extent to subdue, drive away or eliminate those considered the ‘other.’ History is witness to numerous cataclysmic events that should shame us as human beings – except that we don’t seem to learn any lesson from history.

In college we were taught only Western (mainly European) history. We thus learnt about the massacre of the Cathars, the crusades, about the flight of the Quakers to America, and the Inquisition in our college days. It was much later that we came to know about the carnage that the partition of India brought about and the displacement of millions of people between India and newly-formed Pakistan, with perhaps as many barbaric deaths. Then came the Cultural Revolution in China, captured so vividly in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Chinese writer Jung Chang. Afterwards there was the genocide described by Rahul Pandita in Our Moon Has Blood Clots, ‘the unspoken chapter in the story of Kashmir, in which it was purged of the Kashmiri Pandit community in a violent ethnic cleansing backed by Islamist militants. Hundreds of people were tortured and killed, and about 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes and spend the rest of their lives in exile in their own country.’ ‘Convert, leave or die’ they were told.

Wherever we look around the world, there is evidence of the either/or mindset. Some people simply do not want to live with others not sharing the same belief(s) or subscribing to the same view about how their countries should be ruled, and who should do so. It was thought that democracy would bring about the change in mindset and foster at least a semblance of harmonious living. But it also has failed to live up to the image of the magic wand that it was supposed to be.

When will we realise that in a polity, not even the brightest and most talented of all, has all the virtues and qualities and intelligence that may help mankind attain optimum levels of existence, and that, therefore, the key to progress and sustainable lifestyle is in working together in synergy and in harmony?

Until we do that and translate it into practice within a framework that has place for everybody irrespective of race, religion or creed, or ideology, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the future.


* Published in print edition on 25 June 2021

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