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20th March 2017

A new traditionalism in political debate

We ought to understand ourselves, then engage with our families, friends, and communities before taking to the streets in rage

Student Union elections, Reclaim the Night, BDS. It is a challenge to escape politics on a student campus. That is, it is hard to escape politics as we know it. Outrage at problems of the world and a desire to change them is part and parcel of the development of the adolescent mind. But how should we apply our efforts?

In the face of what some have supposed to be the beginnings of a new totalitarianism, many have escalated their efforts in calling all to arms, with particular regards to Donald Trump’s electoral success. In doing so, and in support for such actions, they have created grand, romantic images of unity, solidarity, and all the rest.

External, mass protest is not a necessity of that youthful revolutionary spirit. Whilst throughout history these powerful shows of public resistance have achieved immense progress, we might argue that taking part in one makes the least sense of all the possible avenues for politics. For many people, attending an anti-Donald Trump rally will have been their first political action. Of all the scales of politics, why pick the very top, where the web of complexities is the widest?

There is a certain comfort to be found in mass-protest. There is no necessity to articulate individual motives, there are usually pre-arranged speakers to attempt to fill the voids of thought, and then there is the easily-memorable headline facts and quotes that drew in the crowds in the first place.

For all the significance of these major political debates, how many of us can truly articulate ourselves? How many times will we hear “he’s sexist” or “she’s a racist”, “he’s transphobic” or any other platitude as a reason for not engaging in debate? This University’s Safe Space policy is peaceful compared to the language censorship, no-platforming, and violent protest seen on U.S. campuses in the name of keeping those whom you disagree with at a suitable distance.

How many times in conversation will I, you, or anyone shrug their shoulders or remain a little quieter when a political topic arises? For me, it is far too often. My ability to explain myself and my opinions in conversation is despicable given any measure of my ‘academic’ worth.

When we approach the world and the political debate that engaging with it entails, we ought to start with what we (think we) know best: ourselves. That rage of the adolescent brain should be channelled from the picket line to the page, where, rather than chant in unison, one can better understand one’s past, present, and future.

If we were to understand ourselves more thoroughly, we might not call people like Mao ‘monsters’. We might understand that, as human, we too are capable of something just as awful. Before this, and with far more ease, we could understand our potential as an active or tacit supporter of such people. Easier still, we might understand how people could come to vote for Donald Trump.

What use would this be? University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson makes an interesting claim that this sort of personal development would make us more resilient in the face of political adversity. Rather than scorn at the horrors of the world, we would understand how people like us contributed to them. He calls this “incorporating our shadow”. Beyond this, he argues that our generation must “change the world…properly” beginning with struggle to better know ourselves.

After sorting ourselves out and learning to properly articulate our lives and opinions, we might find ourselves strong enough to engage with those around us. A far more difficult task than that of attending a mass protest would be to explain a progressive ideal to a more conservatively-inclined grandfather, mother, or friend. There is a challenge for all of us: to be able to discuss any political issue with family and friends without embarrassment, fallings-out, or muted opinions.

This way, the grand tensions of mass protest and anger would be dispersed. By doing the small, courageous thing more often, a widened political discourse might act to reduce the extremities of the current political climate.

All this talk of family and small-scale things seems strangely conservative. Perhaps it is. Think of this as a new traditionalism; a progressive retrofitting of the old family and community model.

Maybe one day these notions — alongside similar calls from others, such as a scaling-down of business activities argued for by some environmentalists — will feed back into our economy and society. We might start living closer to home. Perhaps less of us will live in lonesome apartments. Maybe the geography and demands of jobs will shift to accommodate these things.

All this in an idealist’s world. Perhaps, for now, we might take just that first step: by articulating ourselves though writing, we should try to better understand our histories, how we deal with our lives in the present, and what our futures hold. For everyone on this earth is devastated, confused, or thrilled by those same questions.

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