The mid­dle mud­dle

Does great­ness come from pur­su­ing our ideals? Would the con­stant ad­vice to com­pro­mise wa­ter that down?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - Ta­pes­try Sharyn Shu­fiyan Sharyn Shu­fiyan be­lieves that cul­tures adorn a so­ci­ety, much like Ta­pes­try on a piece of cloth. She puts on an an­thro­po­log­i­cal hat to dis­cuss Malaysia’s cul­tures, sub­cul­tures and so­ci­ety (ies). Write to her at star2@thes­

IWAS once in­vited to speak at a gath­er­ing themed: “How youths can lead through the mid­dle path.” Al­though I was some­what moved by the in­vi­ta­tion, I was ex­tremely ner­vous. It was to be my first proper talk, framed by a topic that for me, is as vague as the con­cept of 1Malaysia. I didn’t quite know what to talk about as I felt some­what “mid­dle-ish” about the topic it­self. But I de­cided to give it a try and ap­proached it in my own way.

The brief that I was given for the talk ex­plained the mid­dle path as: “The idea of choos­ing the mid­dle path is the em­pha­sis on act­ing on ideals paired with prag­mat­ics, do­ing things in the right mea­sure, in the right way, at the right time, em­pathis­ing with oth­ers and seek­ing work­able com­pro­mises when nec­es­sary for unity.”

Call me a re­al­ist, but ideals are sub­jec­tive, what is “right” to one may be “wrong” to another. And when is the “right” time? Is there even one? “Com­pro­mise” and “tol­er­ance” are both in my list of cringe-wor­thy words be­cause, to me, both seem dis­hon­est; to com­pro­mise means that some­thing will be lost, some­thing will have to be let go off, and to tol­er­ate means that some­thing is to be put up with, even if you dis­agree with some­one or some­thing, you tol­er­ate for the bet­ter good.

Sure, the mid­dle path is per­haps the best path; re­li­gions of the world have preached the mid­dle path. But when it comes to prin- ciples and ideals, I don’t think any­one should be mid­dle about how they frame their world­views. And of­ten, the best works or achieve­ments were not fruited from tak­ing the mid­dle path but from a strong com­mit­ment to one’s own prin­ci­ples and ideals – re­gard­less whether they are “right” or “wrong”.

So I de­cided to speak about dis­sensus, the an­tithe­sis to con­sen­sus. Con­sen­sus keeps ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one “in its place”, main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo; when the con­sen­sus is chal­lenged or in­ter­rupted by the si­lenced, in­vis­i­ble group, dis­sensus takes place.

Dis­sensus, the wide­spread dis­agree­ment, dis­sat­is­fac­tion or dis­sent, is a fea­ture in any so­ci­ety. Tak­ing a mid­dle path would mean to abide by the con­sen­sus, to avoid con­flict, to do what is “ac­cepted” as “right”. But what is right is sub­jected to what one per­ceives it to be. At any one time, a right way of think­ing may be the sta­tus quo, un­til chal­lenged.

For ex­am­ple, right now the gen­eral con­sen­sus is that democ­racy is the right kind of pol­i­tics un­til chal­lenged by say, com­mu­nism. And when com­mu­nism be­comes the gen­eral con­sen­sus, another ide­ol­ogy might chal­lenge it – it could be democ­racy again or some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent like ab­so­lute monar­chy.

Dis­sensus is a process, and so­ci­ety goes through this process con­tin­u­ously, in any form – be it in pol­i­tics, arts, academia etc. Civ­i­liza­tions fall and rise, gov­ern­ments change, wars be­gin and end be­cause so­ci­ety is or­ganic and ide­olo­gies are never ab­so­lute.

Of course, one could de­cide to stay in the mid­dle path, but I don’t think one can achieve great­ness by com­pro­mis­ing one’s ideals for the sake of oth­ers. Strong ac­tions are guided by clear ide­olo­gies, clear prin­ci­ples; ones that are un­will­ing to com­pro­mise. Ide­olo­gies and the sta­tus quo need to be chal­lenged be­cause ide­olo­gies are merely hu­man con­struc­tions; they can be dis­man­tled, chal­lenged or built upon.

There are many ways to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo – a sim­ple gath­er­ing at Merdeka Square to re­claim pub­lic spa­ces or brav­ing the cold ly­ing naked on a gi­ant plate to protest against meat con­sump­tion – not all dis­sent has to be about loud marches on the streets.

We base our prin­ci­ples on cer­tain ide­olo­gies that we sub­scribe to. So there isn’t a “right” prin­ci­ple – just dif­fer­ent ra­tio­nal­i­ties. And the world is not a ho­moge­nous thing – there are many dif­fer­ent ra­tio­nal­i­ties; do we as­pire for a “bet­ter” Malaysia by com­pro­mis­ing our ra­tio­nal­i­ties? And whose ver­sion of a bet­ter Malaysia do we com­pro­mise when not ev­ery­one en­vi­sions the same Malaysia?

So a bet­ter or united Malaysia is an ideal put in the fu­ture – a utopia – an end to the strug­gle for unity. But there is no end, only process. Even in the past, when we re­flect how much more united Malaysians were, there was still con­flict which led to the dev­as­tat­ing events of May 13.

It is a con­tin­u­ous cy­cle be­cause there will al­ways be peo­ple who will not agree with the con­sen­sus. But in­stead of shut­ting the mi­nor­ity up, it is equally im­por­tant to let them speak, even if you don’t think they are “right”. Ul­ti­mately, it’s all about power play isn’t it? Whose ide­ol­ogy can be pushed fur­ther? Which ideals are more pop­u­lar?

A lot of peo­ple have crit­i­cised dis­sent for be­ing fool­ish, vi­o­lent or a nui­sance. But dis­sent at­tracts at­ten­tion, and when peo­ple turn their heads to look, a mes­sage is be­ing trans­mit­ted. For ex­am­ple, the Ber­sih ral­lies, re­gard­less of the crit­i­cisms against them, suc­ceeded in bring­ing the agenda of elec­toral re­forms to light.

Look over our shores and we see dis­sent tak­ing place ev­ery­where – Lon­don’s stu­dent protests, the global “oc­cupy” move­ments, the Arab Spring ... One of the par­tic­i­pants at the talk told me that dis­sent is hap­pen­ing be­cause of the in­flu­ence of so­cial me­dia, but I re­minded him that even be­fore the dawn of tech­nol­ogy, peo­ple have moved en masse and sparked rev­o­lu­tions. It was, and is, about a clash of dif­fer­ent views of what is “right”.

The talk also re­minded me of the scene be­tween El­phaba and Glinda from the mu­si­cal Wicked. Glinda had asked El­phaba to com­pro­mise: “El­phie, lis­ten to me. Just say you’re sorry. You can still be with the Wizard, what you’ve worked and waited for, you can have all you ever wanted.”

To which El­phaba replied, “Some­thing has changed within me, some­thing is not the same, I’m through with play­ing by the rules of some­one else’s game. Too late for se­condguess­ing, too late to go back to sleep. It’s time to trust my in­stincts, close my eyes and leap!”

You could choose to take the mid­dle path like Glinda, or ruf­fle a few feath­ers (and what mar­vel­lous feath­ers they were!) to stand her ground.

How would you ap­proach it? a Pales­tinian child in a re­cent protest against the ‘siege’ of the Gaza strip by Is­rael. Should the Pales­tini­ans prac­tise more ‘tol­er­ance’ and ‘com­pro­mise’?

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