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Opinion

Professor Kevin P. Clements, Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, discusses the need to dignify politics by according dignity to all. 

We are living in interesting and deeply worrying times. The neo-liberal world order and the democratic project are both under severe threat.

While neo-liberalism has many critics – myself included – it did generate trans-national openness, more porous boundaries between nation states and gave impetus to positive and negative globalisation. Positive globalisation is about national and regional problems being seen in one-world terms. Negative globalisation is about growing inequality and poverty (nationally, regionally and globally) and the world being seen through the optics of markets, trans-national finance and corporations. All of these dynamics are linked.

The challenge confronting humanity is how to ensure that globalisation is positive rather than negative, and how to build a world that is empathetic and cosmopolitan. This means acknowledging our global interdependence, species solidarity, and recognising that none of the major problems confronting the world are capable of being resolved at national levels alone.

Unfortunately there are some who choose to respond to the negative consequences of globalisation with a retreat to atavistic nationalism.

The first big shock of 2016 was the British referendum on the European Union which went in favour of exit. While there are many explanations for the vote, the fact is that post-referendum Britain is in a state of political and economic uncertainty. The consequence of Brexit is that the UK government now has to negotiate a withdrawal from the EU which many believe to be one of the major achievements of post-war Europe. With all its flaws and inadequacies there is no doubt that the EU has kept the peace in Europe for the last 60 years.

Now the UK government has to work out relationships with the EU from the outside rather than in, which will generate many problems in terms of regional unity, energy, climate change, economic regulations, 21st century concepts of sovereignty and new foreign policy positions. But perhaps the biggest downside of Brexit is that it also activated a permissive environment for old-style bias, prejudice and racism. Withdrawal from the EU is being associated with a promotion of white English/British privilege.

The second big shock was the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. His personality, campaign pronouncements and actions since his inauguration have generated high levels of systemic unpredictability as his office and administration advances an America first, isolationist, protectionist and assertive stance towards friends and enemies alike.

He won the election with a politics of fear and seems intent on maintaining that fear even if the “facts” don't support him. The refugee and migrant ban was the most egregious manifestation of these tendencies, but on other issues such as the New START Treaty, climate change, multilateralism, free trade, co-operative security, arms control and disarmament, relations with Iran, and sustainable development, the prospects are gloomy.

After the Presidential election the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to 2½ minutes to midnight in acknowledgement of the President’s unpredictability, nuclear challenge and fears about climate change.

But, here again, the major casualty of this election has been the generation of a permissive environment for naming and blaming others, for bias, prejudice and hatred against people of colour, foreigners, and those who don't conform to some mythical notion of how an ”ideal” American should look and act.

The political leaders of the Brexit movement and Donald Trump have created environments in which prejudice rather than respect, hate rather than empathy, fear rather than fearlessness, and dishonour rather than dignity are shaping attitudes and behaviour. All of these attitudes generate deep insecurity, anxiety and discontent.

Donna Hicks argues in her 2011 book, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, that if we do not accord dignity to others we run the risk of forfeiting the right to be treated humanely ourselves.

I would go so far as to say that the Western democratic project will unravel unless we start treating friends and foes alike with dignity and respect. This is a pre-requisite for civilised, humane behaviour and for rule-based politics. Without it our kith and kin in the UK and America will be seduced into thinking that the only future they have is one in which diversity is eradicated in favour of “tribal solidarity” with the white Anglosphere. These are the deeper negative consequences of both Brexit and Trump.

So what do we need to do to bring back respect and dignity into our New Zealand politics and, more importantly, to US and UK politics? Hicks has the following suggestions.

First, we need to accept the identities of others so that they can express their authentic selves without fear of negative judgement. There is no place for prejudice, bias or discrimination on any grounds. We must assume that each person has their own integrity and nurture that within them.

Second is recognition. We need to validate others for their talents, hard work and thoughtfulness, giving them credit for their ideas and wisdom.

Third, we accord people dignity by acknowledgement and attention. Listening to other people’s concerns and histories is another way in which we dignify the other. Fourth, we need to practice inclusion rather than exclusion. We dignify by making people feel that they belong within their own families, communities, organisations and nation.

Fifth, we dignify by making people feel safe rather than insecure. We do this by ensuring no possibility of bodily harm and by not shaming or humiliating, but by encouraging others to speak their minds in safe spaces. Sixth, fairness is critical to dignity. We have to treat others as equals and work within agreed laws and rules. Seventh, we need to treat others as independent and free; eighth, empowered; and ninth, understood.

Finally, Hicks argues that we should treat people fairly according to agreed laws and rules. They should also be independent and free, empowered, understood and treated as trustworthy. This means starting from the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.

In all of this, each one of us needs to be accountable for our actions and, if we violate the dignity of the other, we need to apologise and make a commitment to change our hurtful behaviour.

If these are the elements of dignified exchanges between people we are a long way from the ideal in both the UK and the US at the present time. On almost every criterion, both Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, for example, are pursuing undignified and undignifying policies of disrespect, hate, bias and prejudice.

Nothing will unravel the Western democratic project faster than a reassertion of 19th century imperial intolerance, a disrespect for human rights and the rule of law, and a Manichaean dualistic division of the world into them and us, good and bad, included and excluded.

This is a recipe for violence, insecurity, injustice, unfairness and unpeacefulness. It has to be resisted and stopped now so that there is a flickering chance the democratic flame might be rekindled and justice and peace will indeed kiss each other.

Photo: Alan Dove