I recently came back to Brazil after six and a half years living abroad. It isn’t the first time I stay away for a while and have a reality shock coming back. This time, however, the shock is much worse, as everyday I see signs of a country that is progressively losing many of the important conquests of the last 30 years in terms of human rights and democracy. In this context, the on-going impeachment process of president Dilma Rousseff is just the culmination of a much more complex process that touches fundamental changes in our society and the way we relate to democracy and to each other.
In this post I do not want to pick sides and focus on the question that has been at the centre of the current political debate — is there a coup taking place or not? This is obviously important, but there is plenty on this out there. Instead, I want to reflect on our own society and how we are relating to this crisis.
As someone returning home, it is striking for me to see how we have become a much more divided society. Yes, we always had social divisions arising from our history (including economic and racial, despite the propaganda to the contrary). Yet, looking back, I always felt that overall we shared a strong common identity and an important degree of solidarity and empathy among ourselves. What is shocking today is that there seems to be an active and open effort to promote division and separation.
Surely there is a strong political component to this. As the political scene becomes more polarised, people tend to pick sides, instead of envisaging different alternatives or trying to gain a wider perspective of the problem. Ultimately, what we see today is a voracious competition for discourses of truth and righteousness, combined with the attempt to suppress alternative discourses and thus deny others of their ability to think differently. Needless to say, this is the very denial of democracy.
As political polarisation has trickled down to the everyday citizen we are facing the increasing lack of tolerance and feeling of belonging to a community. We are no longer Brazilians — a ‘we’. Instead, we are naturally defined as belonging either to the ‘left’ or to the ‘right’ (whatever these terms mean), even if we don’t feel as belonging neither here nor there. Worse, as we are placed in tiny boxes, we are given extra labels, especially if you are place in the ‘left’ box — i.e., ‘communist’ or ‘petralha’, not to say ‘corrupted’.
I certainly do not want to minimise the effects of the corruptions scandals in firing up people’s feelings towards politics and towards each other’s positions on this matter. Yet, as far as I can remember in my nearly 37 years, corruption was always a problem in Brazil. We also faced economic crisis, high inflation (how many times we had to cut ‘zeros’…), as well as a presidential impeachment, but people did not turn against each other. True, we didn’t have access to alternative means of communication and probably believed whatever they showed on TV, whereas today we have more means to contest manipulated information — as well as to create fake and inflammatory news… Also, it all came together this time…
But what is really scary today is that politics has become personal. The period leading to the last presidential elections was exemplar of this, especially on Facebook, where we could see many attacks on people’s opinions and friendships ending because of different political stands. Suddenly it seems ‘ok’ to be aggressive towards someone who has a different view — especially if they are (perceived as) from the ‘left’. In fact, there has been an increase in acts of physical aggression towards people wearing the colour red — which happens to the colour of the banner of left wing party PT (see many stories here and here). Moreover, if you are not wearing red, but if your prototype somehow falls under the other tiny boxes that constitute the ‘usual profile’ of the ‘enemy’ (have a beard, look like a hippy or are part of a minority), well… beware…
What makes this scenario worse — if the above wasn’t bad enough — is that, once violence becomes a ‘normal’ reaction, it can soon be trivialised and, at its worth, be actually praised as a fair means to change things. I can’t express how horrified I was (as many Brazilians were) when Jair Bolsonaro, a far right congressmen, before stating his vote pro-impeachment praised Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a notorious military known for the torturing of President Dilma Rousseff. Note that he said that with pride, while he was dedicating his vote to ‘freedom’. The fact that he felt comfortable to say this in what should be the house of our democracy, while the event was going live on TV, is disturbing to say the least. A day after the impeachment vote, I was checking any reactions of Facebook and was again appalled when I saw that a person had actually posted a smiling face on a post speaking of the torture of President Rousseff. Social rock-bottom…
I get it, in such a polarized scenario, it is incredibly difficult to stay neutral and not get caught into the contagious and firing competition for ‘righteousness’ and ‘legitimacy’ narratives. Yet, it is also this scenario that presents us an incredible opportunity to be mindful and challenge ourselves to build bridges and rescue our sense of community instead of promoting further division.
Let me share the link of one of the most refreshing things I recently read online, just a few days before the impeachment vote: The politics of compassion in a world of ruthless power. Maybe you will feel the same strangeness I did when I saw these two words together — ‘politics’ and ‘compassion’. After all, isn’t Machiavelli ‘the’ politics guy and aren’t we taught that politics is ‘hard stuff’ and compassion is something… else? In fact, are we even taught anything about compassion as undergrads, MA students, PhD researchers in International Relations, Political Science, etc.?
Well, I can’t recommend enough that you read this post, because it is just a beautiful reminder of those things we tend to forget when we most need to remember. In simple terms, as put by Kevin Clements, the politics of compassion is “a politics that places the welfare of the community first and the state second”. So basic, so necessary and yet so difficult in times like this. Why? He clarifies the reasons discussing our current social pathologies. But I would like to highlight a key aspect of this process: to put the community first, we need to focus on empathy. And yet, how do we empathise with those we perceive as ‘enemies’?
Situations like the one we are living in Brazil right now offers us the opportunity to define what kind of human beings we want to be. Being reactive is the easy (and automatic and unconscious) way. Since I came back, many times I felt my heart accelerating, the blood in my veins thickening while I read about episodes like the ones mentioned above. The comment from Bolsonaro lit a fire of rage and disgust in my heart, and yes, for a moment I felt ‘entitled’ to wish that he had a great sample of what torture feels like so he could at least have some consciousness about what he was saying. But then it hit me: this would be a trap — and it is the trap we are living in. As long as we justify our anger and keep feeding it, it doesn’t matter on which side we stand, as we wouldn’t be that different at the end of the day. No one can win in a battle of egos. Sure, a discourse can ‘win’, but as long as we bet on division and we detach ourselves from others, we will always be denying our own humanity.
So the question is, can we resist non-violently and with integrity in the face of strong direct and structural violence? Can we face our ‘enemies’ and yet look at them as humans like ourselves? Can we channel our anger towards something constructive in our own community? Can we be compassionate in a world of ruthless power? Or, as discussed by John Holloway in one of my favourite books, can we change the world without taking power?
Let me conclude reflecting on Holloways’ words: “There is an alternative to the state. Indeed, the state is simply the movement of suppressing the alternative”. As long as we fight each other because of the state, we are missing the point. There is so much change we can pursue at the level of the everyday that may have a huge impact in our society. In fact, I dare to say that our congress and our politicians are actually a reflection of who we are and how we deal with each other. May this crisis be taken as an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities as human beings.