We must raise the standard of public discourse [THE NATIONAL]

August 4, 2016

It has been more than a week since Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, shocked even more of the American media and pundit community. His comments about the Khans, an American Muslim family whose son was killed in the line of duty, have apparently “crossed the line” for many Americans – even those on the right wing of American politics. But was it really the “line” that was too much? And is the “line” being crossed only in American politics – or do we have a much larger problem to be concerned about?

It is a serious thing in American politics that a politician of any significance spoke in this fashion about an American military family, particularly one whose son was killed in the line of duty. But Mr Trump in the process of his campaign thus far has already said many things of a deeply questionable nature. His comments about Muslims, Latino Americans, and a broad variety of political issues should have disqualified him in terms of public opinion a very long time ago. The fact that they did not says a great deal about the depth of the problem in American politics – and if the Republican party does not act soon, it will soon be unable to repair the immense damage he and the narrative he upholds have done to American public discourse.

But it is not simply in the United States that such poor interchanges exist. It is true that when it happens in America, it has a disproportionate effect internationally. Most major international media are American, and the United States is the driving force behind the main power hegemon of the world.

But in both the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the June 23 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, many things were declared by British politicians that should have also been considered “out of bounds” for respectable public conversation. They weren’t – and that has an effect on wider discussions in Europe.

Nevertheless, it is not simply in the West that such an issue exists – and that ought to be recognised. Our political discourse, worldwide, is in dire need of an injection of humanisation and respect. That is no less true in the Arab world.

Sectarianism is one such issue that needs to be addressed. Politicians of different stripes in Muslim-majority countries speak of other Muslim sects in a regrettable fashion – whether that means Sunnis speaking about Shias, or Shias about Sunnis. It is also true about some Muslims referring to Christians; and certainly with notable Jewish Israeli figures referring to Muslims.

Even in political terms, a similar problem exists with some Sunni Muslims referring to other Sunni Muslims. That kind of abuse of religion is widespread. Politics ought to be able to differentiate between political opposition and insisting that the “other” is an existential enemy. There are few who truly qualify for being described as the latter – and the excessive abuse of discourse in this fashion has its long-term consequences.

It’s not just long-term societal damage that takes place as a result of this profuse use of demonisation – it has short-term critical effects. Real human beings are killed in hate crimes.

But it requires a sense of seriousness from opinion-formers and political leaders. Grass-roots work is direly needed, but leadership is also immensely important. All too often, some types of dehumanisation, particularly vis-à-vis political opponents, are deemed, incorrectly, to be acceptable. If the Arab world is to progress, it will need to tackle that head on.

Politics is all too often a dirty game. It is, nevertheless, the way in which much societal change is mediated and affected – and it is thus an arena that needs desperate attention.

Mr Trump may yet prove to have provided the United States with a priceless service: an example of how not to engage in politics. If the American people reject his model of politics, and not simply his candidacy, that will be a firm step in the right direction. But that step has to be taken not only in the US, but worldwide, including our region.

Each day that we collectively fail to rectify this issue is another day in which people are dehumanised, and that only leads to further catastrophe and tragedy.

The responsibility for that lies not only with those who perpetuate bigotry of various kinds, but also with the rest of us who are content to leave it unchallenged.

Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Centre for the Middle East in Washington DC and at the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Source: The National

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