Written by Maeve McKaig
“I am not my government.”
In a time where liberal democracy seems to be in limbo, this phrase carries particular weight. All over the world, there are people who do not feel represented by their government, whose lives have been politicized in order to further national debate, and who have no choice but to express resistance in the face of political attack. But how does one resist?
This question exemplifies the necessity of a panel hosted by the Center for Civic Engagement and Institute for International Liberal Education on November 14; “Resistance Panel: I Am Not My Government.” The panelists included individuals connected to Bard representing Russia, Hungary, Palestine, and the United States. In order to protect the panelists, this article will not include names or other identifying material, only their perspectives and stories. Like the panel, this piece is guided by the philosophy “what is said here stays here; what is learned here leaves here.”
Moderator Lexi Parra, a senior at Bard, gave an outline for the panel and some insight to its goal; to explore what you do when your government doesn’t represent you, what resistance means in institutions, and how expression exists when the government is not representational.
For the United States, the question of how effectively the government represents citizens is undoubtedly muddled by various glitches seen in the 2016 election. Hacking by foreign powers, voter repression, and the role of the electoral college are just some of the factors that complicate the issue. But beyond the blunders of our electoral process in 2016, another question arises; perhaps the problem does not lie in the government’s representation, but in the politically split society it represents?
The panelist representing Russia discussed this idea;
“Looking at my culture, but also, with America, I wouldn’t say that the governments of this country are not representational, or are not representing. The opposite is true; they very well represent the population, but it is simply is the case that the population is diverse. Let’s say that the population is politically split.”
The panelist representing Russia observed that in the US, the population is split around “40/60, 45/55, no one knows for sure, while in Russia, it is I would say, it is 85:15.” Institutions of higher education play a role in this binary, as universities tend to embrace intellectual liberal ideology while the population outside of the universities are usually not intellectual in habit. The panelist added, “and in the case of intellectual, I mean, they can be very intelligent, but not intellectual in their habit.” In Russia, academia is split as well. Large state universities, some with over 100,000 students, tend to ally with the state; but there are more westernized schools, located in the larger cities, that do not share the views of the majority. The latter institutions are under direct political attack. European University in St. Petersburg, for example, is half closed. The state revoked the school’s license, for “very thinly covered political reasons.” Anxious about the political climate, the opposition decided to attack universities in order to stop western ideology and values from spreading.
After observing the situation in America, the panelist representing Russia expressed alarm at the bitterness seen on both sides of the ideological and political spectrum. There are instances where expressing an opinion different to those around you can keep you out of an institution. There is an obvious hypocrisy in one side accusing the other of malevolence without recognizing the same behavior in themselves.
“The problem is this: if we, on our side, mirror the intolerance that the other side may show, then it’s a spiral of a solution. I believe that the solution of a situation lies gradually in finding a common ground in some kind of societal dialogue, precisely in the universities and colleges, [which] are places for such dialogue for gradual building of some kind of mutual understanding, which is missing. And again, it’s the same thing in Russia. I was to name this problem in one word this would be polarization.”
The panelist representing Palestine talked about what it is like to live in an extremely polarized society, and how that pressure affects your perspective on life.
“I come from a place that is highly politicized; there is a lot of social and political division, not only in my community where Arabs live, but among the two groups, Arabs and Israelis. It is a complicated place, let’s put it that way. You have so many different layers of pressure that are imposed on you. It is not your choice; you’re kind of thrown into it, you are born into it.”
The intensity of the political situation forces the idea of “the other side” into the collective psyche. The panelist said that at there is an inherent problem with politics that lies at the root of polarization.
“This is where I want to get at why we have social divisions is because of politics. That is for a very simple reason, in my opinion, which is the fact that politics only dehumanizes the humanized people and takes the human context out of people and just put us in a place where we think of the other as different.”
The panelist representing the United States, a Mexican-American citizen whose parents are undocumented, spoke about what it means to be politicized and what responsibilities come with it.
“I don’t think I was really aware of what it meant to be political or politicized until I was politicized. You know, as a young latino woman in the U.S., daughter of immigrants, I really did not have a choice in that. And I think that a lot of other minorities feel that in a sense, that it’s not really your choice to be political. You’re made political because it’s what’s asked of you in order to represent your communities.”
Throughout the panel, the concept of communication proved to be integral to the issue of polarization. Each panelist spoke about this issue and the problems they have seen; whether people choose to communicate only with people whose opinions they share, if communication is muddled by political rhetoric, or if cultural difference makes communication impossible.
The panelist representing Russia described a situation familiar to Americans, where people essentially live in echo chambers.
“People talk mostly to the people whose political views they share. So, people I know, mostly don’t have many people they know who would vote for our respective president Vladimir Putin. But, there are 70% of Russian population who vote for him. The social networks are autonomous, one from another. I suspect that something similar is the case [in the US] too.”
If you voted for Hillary Clinton, the odds of you knowing someone who voted for Donald Trump are slim, and vice versa. Furthermore, this dynamic allows politicians to easily spread rhetoric based on falsehoods. The panelist representing Hungary described this during a discussion of why supporters of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, are wrong despite being in the majority.
“The whole thing they are living in is a lie. And that’s why I think the whole situation should be changed because I want to live in a world where we don’t live among lies. But it’s not that easy because if you build a world of fears. We are talking about fake news, but this is a fake life that these autocratic politicians build up.”
We have come to believe that if we communicate with the opposition, it is somehow a symbol of weakness in how strongly one feels about an issue. While seen as a source of pride, refusing to communicate with the opposition under the guise of solidarity with the oppressed will likely do more harm than good. The panelist representing Palestine gave an example of missed opportunities for communication.
“My Israeli liberal friends, who are left-winged mostly, tell me, […] ‘Don’t think that we don’t speak to those right-winged people that you see in the streets demonstrating on the T.V. and stuff. We’re not like them. We don’t share anything with them.’ That struck me, that shook me somehow. These people, who think I am a terrorist, and that I am a descendent of terrorists; I can’t talk to them, you know? I can’t talk to the right-wing Israeli who’s the main reason why I am suffering. Why you tell me that you can’t talk to them? You, the other Israeli person, who’s not very different from him, can’t talk to him? How do you expect me, the Palestinian one, who is being accused of being a terrorist and all of this stuff, to speak to them?”
The panelist representing the United States also felt frustration after hearing similar things, especially coming from people who are more able to speak to those on the other side.
“I often hear a lot of my counterparts being like, “I come from a really conservative family, I can’t stand my family, I can’t talk to them,” and shut them down. And that’s so devastating to hear because I think they have so many more similarities than differences, especially if they are family members. I think there can always be a conversation to have within these groups, and I know it’s hard but I think to be part of a resistance movement you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
This brings us to resistance; specifically, how does one resist and what does that look like? For the panelist representing the United States, if you have been politicized, being yourself is a form of resistance in itself.
“I think a form of resistance for a lot of young people, especially for me in the realm of resistance, more specifically addressing the US political situation, is just being yourself and supporting and being an ally for the people around you who are struggling with this because resistance is hard and it’s very alienating when you know that it’s your group that’s more specifically under target.”
Embracing your identity and expressing yourself, if safe to do so, is an effective way to resist a movement that seeks to effectively ignore the reality of an opposition. It is far more difficult to forget an active opposing force than one that lacks an identity. When it is no longer in the interest of the government to represent you, being yourself and resisting is the best way to call attention to a lack of representation.