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Undermining extremism by telling individual stories

By Ooi Kee Beng for The Edge Malaysia Weekly, November 27, 2017 – December 03, 2017.

Strangely, moderation is not a subject that needs to be discussed and elaborated upon. It is the default position in any stable society. Instead, it is the nature of extremism — especially when it is happily growing within a society — that needs explaining.

More concretely, the question to answer is, what ideational process is it that draws people away from being moderate in their relationship with their fellowmen?

In most parts of the world, and definitely in academia, the word “race” has been replaced since the end of the Second World War by the word “ethnicity” in the hope that the latter will be devoid of the bad connotations and toxic notions of the former. Definitely in this part of the world, what we should be doing is strategically highlight how we had traditionally thought of ethnicity before “race” and “nation” were injected into our minds.

For starters, we should drop the use of the word multiracialism. Instead, we should more consistently adopt the term cultural pluralism. We should consciously choose to use “culture” instead of “race”.

In the Chinese language, culture is understood as “wenhua”, literally meaning “to become literate”. It is not a term that is meant to be exclusive by virtue of birth or blood. There is the idea that one is more or less cultured or of a certain culture, and one, over time, develops towards becoming more and more a certain cultural being. The same can be said of the Malay notion, where someone can “masuk Melayu” — join the Malay community.

These are not notions of bloodlines. These are notions of acculturation, meaning that they accept a world of “more or less this” and “more or less that”, culturally. The blood element that is so prominent in the West whenever race is mentioned, and that allows for clear boundaries between “Them” and “Us”, was not a defining factor in this part of the world. It was imported from the European context, and found useful by certain political trends here.

This element of blood — fully developed into quasi-scientific Eugenics in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe — led to the slaughter of humans on an unprecedented scale in the globe-spanning wars that culminated in what we call the Second World War.

The horrors of those times made clear the need to formulate the Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed by the newly-founded United Nations in December 1948. A tragic line — that had been crossed often in human history but that, in the industrial age, had culminated in the conveyor-belt extermination of humans classified as inferior sub-species — had now been deeply drawn in our minds, so that it would hopefully not be crossed as impudently as before.

The curse of sub-speciation

The notion of human rights is basically a refusal to engage in the sub-speciation of human beings, by states or by ideologues. Humans are humans, full stop.

Extremism, understood in contrast to moderation, is therefore not simply a propensity to perform acts that are deemed extreme by popular standards. Instead, extremism should be understood as the direct result of ideas that involve a sub-speciation of humans, where some categories are considered morally inferior to others. Conducting war normally does involve such a process. This means that sub-speciating acts and speeches, even in times of peace, really amount to warmongering more than simply hate-mongering.

That being said, it is not an easy matter to pinpoint why a person acts in an extremist fashion. Such behaviour can be driven by socio-economic or other personal reasons but which piggybacks on extremist ideas for whatever advantages or comfort that may provide.

So, how do we discourage extremist thought from growing further in Malaysian society today?

The obvious and immediate measures that can be undertaken are:

1. Leaders need to speak out persistently against hate speech and behaviour aimed at ascribing moral or other inferiority to prescribed groups of people through conceptual exclusivism. By conceptual exclusivism, I mean ideas that place humans into moral categories from which they cannot in principle break out. Much that makes up power is moral, and the opinion of a country’s leaders can do a lot in defining the discourse atmosphere of society. Silence is not a neutral stance, and where hate speech is concerned, it is usually a supportive position.

2. Reliable and objective implementation of legislations against hate speech marks society’s rejection of ideas that divide the citizenry through essentialist arguments.

Longer-term measures, to my mind, must involve discursive strategies aimed at recognising the country’s diversity as a constant and as a strength in the building of its economy, its state and its sense of nationhood. In contrast to unity through imposing commonalities, the nation-building theme should be the sharing of diversity instead.

Malaysia is culturally more diverse than even the most liberal of us can imagine. But since culture is a state of flux, the cultural diversity we should be highlighting is not that of the community but that of the individual, and that of specific periods.

A nation of storytellers

Malaysians should be encouraged to become storytellers. They should become a country of writers who write mindfully about their experiences and their lives. They should be more autobiographical, and through their self-reflections, they can claim that their identities and their lives are not merely collective and symbolic ones, but are individual and unique ones instead.

It is by working actively in refusing to be categorised as — and refusing to think as — sub-species of humans that the individual Malaysian mind can grow, and it is through focusing on the particular and the specific in each of their lives that the full beauty of Malaysia’s cultural diversity can see the light of day and claim its right to define the country, the state and the nation.

Let individual culture overwhelm politics, let literature overwhelm the moral police, and the country should live up to the potential that everyone knows it has.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. This article is based on his keynote speech given on Oct 5 in Shah Alam at the roundtable talk entitled ‘Multiracial and Moderate Political Thought’ organised by the Centre for Nation Building Studies, Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE).


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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