Humiliation doesn’t discriminate: the risk of a divided society

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Anti-Trump protesters march through the streets of San Francisco
The insecurity of globalisation is perhaps becoming overwhelming. There seems to be a strangely pervasive atmosphere of marginalisation and threatened dignity these last weeks, cutting across ideological divides. Yesterday’s contribution to this blog articulated some principles of what we might need to do in response. My intention below, without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, is to add a shade to the discussion from a different angle.

Comparisons between Trump’s policies and 1930s fascism circulating on social media may or may not be apt. But supposing they are, let’s consider the breadth of the context that facilitated the rise of national socialism. One factor, in an endlessly complex array, was humiliation – a group so fixated on restoring their dignity after the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles that many were blind to the unfolding evil, despite ample warning signs.

Trump violates the dignity of numerous historically (and currently) marginalised communities, in his attitudes and his actions. At the same time, if in fighting Trump’s objectionable policies we indirectly reinforce a sense of ongoing humiliation for another constituency, we plant the seed of future divisiveness. Historically, that broad constituency bears much responsibility for oppressing others (in my own country, I am part of this constituency, as a white Anglo male). That is truth. Nonetheless, that truth needs to be held alongside the truth that a subset of that constituency perceives themselves as marginalised and humiliated in the wash-up of neoliberalism. Forget that on the surface the promises of Trump’s agenda echo the vacuity, probably with an even flimsier theoretical foundation, of the neo-liberal trickle-down promise (at home and abroad). When we are humiliated, we clutch at straws.

Following the UK’s Brexit vote, in Oxford at least (one of the highest ‘remain’ votes in the country), there was a palpable sense among many European residents in the UK that the country to which they immigrated had rejected them. Somewhat similarly, many of the ‘leavers’ had a palpable sense for years that the country of which they are citizens had rejected them. The indignity and the rejection that Trump’s latest policy engenders is real. It’s also real that many would understandably not privilege that over the perception of their own systemic and systematic rejection.

I’ve worked with colleagues in situations of conflict and post-conflict for several years primarily in South Sudan, before returning to study in Oxford. I sometimes have the impression that in the West we look at places like South Sudan and wonder why they can’t sort themselves out; who would tolerate such endless chaos, corruption, abuse of power? And yet I’ve seen more examples of individuals sacrificing their monopoly on narrative to give space for a collective future in South Sudan, than I have at the world’s ‘top’ university.

Some of the consequences of recent executive action in the US have been tragic. Onward the legal challenges and upholding the rule of law. Onward the rejection of bigoted, self-interested attitudes and policies. But if we make friendship contingent on agreement (a pattern emerging on social media this week), and if we reject outright any empathy with other constituencies or approaches, we neglect the longer-term implications of ignoring root divisions; arguably one reason we’re landed in this predicament the first place.

Rob Lancaster is an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015), and previously worked in trust-building programmes in Africa, Europe, the Sub-continent and South East Asia, primarily with Initiatives of Change International.