Home / Opinion / Columns /  Moderates around the world have begun to fight back

In the last one decade, the world became increasingly insular. The country that built an empire on which “the sun never set" now wants to be all alone. Smooth global trade is being replaced with protectionist policies by global economic powers. Discussions on issues that need global cooperation, such as climate change or the management of the covid pandemic, are being boycotted by countries that matter. A humanitarian concern like refugee migration is being portrayed as religious expansionism. Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, written in 2005, looks irrelevant now.

The story is no different in individual countries. Hate crimes against immigrants and minorities have gone up. Racial tensions have never been this high in recent times. Being secular, living peacefully with people of different religions and joining one another’s celebrations are no longer seen as signs of civility. Inter-faith marriages are looked upon with a lot of suspicion.

These confrontational behaviour trends have been promoted by a set of leaders of nations, political parties and religions who came into prominence recently. Many of them embrace extreme points of view. They tend to hold the view that “I am always right and others are always wrong". They show no respect for the opposition. For that matter, they seem to have total disregard for them. Confrontation is the inevitable outcome of this approach, and these leaders thrive in the midst of it. US President Donald Trump’s style of leadership exemplifies it.

Sitting around a negotiation table to sort out differences is not for Trump. Official discussions in the US on climate change ended with his questioning the very science behind it. When faced with uncomfortable questions on the covid outbreak, his approach was to cut off all cooperation with the World Health Organization and blatantly flout the recommendations of his own heath experts. This confrontational style of leadership has many admirers.

Those with extreme point of views are perceived to be more loyal to a cause than others. Extreme positions always facilitate the easy creation of in-groups and out-groups. “Protecting" an in-group from outsiders is an emotionally rousing exercise. So these confrontational leaders generate strong emotions—adored by their followers, hated by their opponents.

This leadership style has an obvious fallout—a diminished role for moderates. As observed in several conflicts around the world, extreme factions label moderates as “collaborators" or “traitors". With the rise of confrontational leaders, moderates may be driven into exile or be intimidated into political silence. In the midst of their silence, only the voice of extremists is usually heard. This could create an impression that it is their point of view that is held by everyone.

This marginalization of moderates tends to result in stalled negotiations and increased intractability across the world. To find wider and easier acceptance of change, initiatives for it should ideally come from discussions and negotiations. Moderates in a group are best suited to create wider acceptance of change initiatives. Any change initiated by outsiders or imposed from within would be looked at with suspicion and almost always face stiff resistance.

The power of moderates has always been structured top-down. Whether it was the Indian freedom movement, or the civil rights movement in the US, or the South African struggle for independence, voices of moderation always came from the top. It is not that moderate leaders like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr, or Nelson Mandela had it easy. They had to face stiff opposition from hardliners over their “soft" approach’s inability to deliver results. There was even criticism that they were giving in too easily, and too much, to their oppressors. But eventually these moderates managed to convince the public that theirs was better than a confrontational approach. Today, moderate leadership is once again gaining prominence.

For every societal trend, there is almost always an equal and opposite trend. The US victory of Joe Biden is a sign that moderates are fighting the confrontational style of Trump. Now that the leader of the world’s most powerful country is expected to adopt a path of moderation, it would be difficult for other leaders around the world not to do so, too. Signs of change are already visible. Observers point out that with the victory of Biden, Britain will be forced to take a less confrontational stance in this week’s negotiations with the European Union.

A few weeks ago, there was another significant move by moderates; this time on the religious front. Pope Francis released his encyclical Fratelli tutti (All brothers) based on an earlier joint document by him and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib. This encyclical exhorts the creation of “a single human family in which we are brothers and sisters" and sounds an alarm against a “culture of walls". Even as those with extreme views within the Catholic Church and in other religions were attempting to drive a wedge between followers of various religions, the voice of moderation in this encyclical is loud and clear.

A victory for Trump would have reinforced the appeal of confrontational leadership. But the election of Biden and Pope Francis’s encyclical are signs that moderates are slowly but surely making their presence felt. The fightback has begun.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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