As we enter 2017, we face a world tormented by absolutism. A world dominated by black-and-white attitudes, where opposing political and ideological sides dig their heels deeper and deeper in their trenches. The narrative of politics, culture and social media everywhere seems to follow the old American idiom of “my way or the highway”.

You are either an alt-right or a liberal, a troll or a critic, a racist or a gutless global citizen, a climate change advocate or a die-hard sceptic, a Brexit supporter or a continental European, a fear-mongering xenophobic conservative or an unpatriotic destroyer of national identity, a native or an immigrant, a greedy accumulator of wealth or a heavy parasite, an elite egg-head or a deplorable ignorant, a zealot pessimist or irredeemable optimist, an untrustworthy crook or a pathological liar, a terrorist or racial hatemonger, a freedom fighter or a radical sectarian.

One wonders what happened to the grey areas. In the good old days of schooling and even in tribal traditions, we learned that the first rule of a debate was to listen and be listened to. To deliver your argument emphatically but politely. To know that your opponent is not your enemy, but rather a friend who saw the issue from a different angle.

We have a good example of this in Arabic literature in the famous story of two poets of the Umayyad period, Jarir and Al Farazdaq, who became celebrities at the time for their mockery, defamation and invective poetry against each other. However, they were known to have been best friends when not engaged in poetry. Jarir even wrote one of his best elegiac poems on the death of his friend.

In a similar atmosphere, I remember a time before the advent of the internet when poets used to rebut each other in our African village. They weren’t shy to lambast each other’s clans at times, but outside the realm of poetry, they were friends. These were the political and ideological clashes in the old days, but they were played within the rules of civility, common decency and sagacity. What is to be underscored is that these people did not have our modern education and technology.

Fortified cyber clanistans

That age now looks like light years away. In the age of the internet, we seem to have lost all that civility and good judgement. In my village today, if a poet barely mentions the name of another clan, let alone criticise them, young internet trolls will fight one another in cyberspace and the innocent villagers will burn in the fire before they even realise what the fuss is all about. We live in an impatient and intolerant world today where a fake story amplified and empowered by an interconnected world can wreak havoc with people’s peace and existence, where the curse of the internet has globalised the fear of the other, heightened racial sensitivity, invented imaginary ghouls and created fortified cyber clanistans where their denizens only see and hear their images like the characters of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

A world where those outside the cave are seen as ‘the other’ — the enemy. And the cave outliers see the cave denizens as fossilised bones who cannot comprehend the meaning of sunlight and fresh air.

In a fickle world like this, it is frightening to imagine how an impulsive leader with a tweet can cause a war if he felt slighted by his counterpart. How fake news from an angry internet troll, a social media post from a fiery seditious politician, or a fatwa from a self-appointed religious firebrand can tumble stock markets, sway a country’s opinion and endanger global security.

This is the world that we inherited from 2016 and as we embrace the new year, my hope is that we reflect on what damage we could do to our world if we remain seeing each other in the binary imagery of black-and-white. If we reduce all our meaning to two colours instead of seeing our world moving in a beautiful kaleidoscope of colours. In other words, we need a world where people can return to a Confucian world we can rectify the names of things so that our language could reflect the universally understood meaning of words, instead of twisting them to echo our inner prejudices, and reducing ‘the other’ to a soulless scarecrow.

— Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues