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