Every criticism of my candidate is “fascist”, writes a cool activist on social media. As this is consented intolerance, the “right side” of the story, that’s fine. Were it an isolated banality, there would be no problem. But that’s not the case, unfortunately. Sterile radicalism has returned with a vengeance, and is likely to set the tone for the electoral debate. Its simplest version is the rhetoric of the “coup”. It doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a connection to reality. It is important to make clear who is democracy, who is darkness. Democracy ceases to be a system, by definition open, common to all, and becomes a type of property. At the end of the day, it’s the logic of fear, an old acquaintance of political marketing. Movie seen in 2018, replayed month by month, for the last three years, and now again. A sign that it somehow works. It serves as a safe-conduct for all sorts of profanity and intolerant gesture, in addition to, of course, earning some votes.
Another sign that we have passed the point in political hysteria is the serial destruction of friendships at the altar of politics. Stories come to me all the time. Of old friends who stop talking; of the godmother “uninvited” by the bride and groom by a post on Facebook. Of the music that the subject refuses to record because the composer voted for the other candidate years ago. For those who are militants and make politics their life, this can make some sense. For most people, it’s just a sign of a loss of personal autonomy, aside from very basic things about civility. Finally, from politics that invades spheres of life that we should protect.
Remedies for these things are difficult. The first of these is to cultivate some dose of self-doubt. Consider, for example, that you may be sorely mistaken in your political choices. The typical militant often laughs at this, from the top of his pile of certainties. For my part, I have always found the hypothesis fascinating. And some relief. If by any chance I had the “certainty of God” that I master the truth, my only duty would be to drop everything and become the Zarathustra prophet of my own opinions. I know a lot of people like that.
At the extreme limit, these things end in tragedy. That’s what happened to Wynn Bruce, an environmental activist who immolated himself in front of the US Supreme Court days ago. He was a Buddhist, he was 50 years old, a smart guy, but he was convinced that something had to be done about global warming. One late April afternoon, he sat in front of the Court, set himself on fire, and burned for a minute without a peep. It yielded some sad articles in the newspapers and a small tribute, which brought together fifty people. One day, who knows, your useless gesture will be a footnote about the danger of taking certain ideas too far.
“We must exchange passion for a politician for the calm defense of ideas”
Another reason to never fall into the bottomless pit of political radicalism is simply that, while politics and elections are important, we tend to overdo it. Politicians, of course, will say otherwise. They and the entire ecosystem that lives off politics, including activists and marketers, will try to convince us that what is at stake is incredibly important. They will say that this election “will define who we are”, will be the “most decisive in republican history”, as I have already started to read around. Small talk. I followed all eight of our presidential elections since 1989, and in all of them things like that were heard. Elections are part of the beans and rice of democracy, and — with more or less noise — this time will be no different.
Campaign marketers will also try to convince us that the candidates express the most perfect dichotomy between good and evil. That one is civilization, the other barbarism; that one wants peace, another war; that “one wants hate, another wants love”, as I saw in a sweet little movie a few days ago. nonsense. Our recent history is proof of that. There has been no shortage of people, in recent years, saying that Squid and the PT would push the “Venezuelan model” down our throats. That our path would be “socialism” and the like. It was not. There was also no shortage of people saying that Bolsonaro it was the “Brazilian Chávez”, that our destiny was “fascism” or, in a curious version of the time tunnel, the “Germany of the 30s”. It wasn’t either. On both sides, it is predictable, the delusional will continue to be delusional. It’s in your nature, there’s not much you can do.
A good hypothesis to understand the reigning radicalism in our political world comes from what the American jurist and philosopher Cass Sunstein called the “law of group polarization”. The thesis suggests that groups in which opinion is homogeneous tend to present a spiral of radicalization. They walk relentlessly towards the extreme point already indicated by their starting position. Let’s imagine: if the group is a bolsonarista, the gang will soon be seeing a diabolical conspiracy by the STF and the “system” to overthrow the captain; if he is anti-Bolsonarista, everyone will soon be “astonished” (as, by the way, I read this week) that no one notices the coup (always him) that is being prepared “in the light of day”. Okay, there may be some exaggeration in the description, but I’m afraid not. The spiral of radicalization basically happens due to the absence of “inconvenient” ideas, in the opposite direction, capable of functioning as a brake mechanism, forcing people (at least) to justify or moderate their views, and an identity effect, which gives prestige not to who produce discomfort, but who are even more loyal to the ideas of the tribe. In short, we generate homogeneity in a plural society, as paradoxical as this may seem. The logical end is the pathologies of hate. Solving the problem involves, according to Sunstein, “betting on environments in which people expose themselves to the vulnerabilities of their own ideas, and not simply to echoes, soft or not, of their own voices”.
I don’t think it’s too simple. Breaking away from tribal polarization presupposes a disposition towards others. Basically, it supposes to drop the ball. Stop imagining yourself in some Star Wars episode, fighting Darth Vader and the evil empire, and imagining, for a moment, that the dark side of the force might just happen to be yours. As a good-natured professor used to tell me, the truth help desk hasn’t been invented yet. Fortunately.
What we should basically do is exchange the passion for a politician for the calm defense of ideas. Of all, I don’t see a better option than freedom. In addition to expressing something valuable in itself, without which we are just a piece of ourselves, freedom is by far the most prudent passion. If you are entirely wrong in your defense, you will not have shoved a way of life down anyone’s throat. Not only will he have let each one make his choices, he will never defend someone being put in the shuffle because of his opinions. You will even learn to celebrate, over time, that people think in a completely different way than you do, and even that there may be something to learn by listening to what they say. Which, between us, in the complicated days we live in, is no small thing.
Fernando Schuler is a political scientist and professor at Insper
The columnists’ texts do not necessarily reflect the opinion of VEJA
Published in VEJA of May 18, 2022, issue nº 2789