“We the people”


Of late, I have started avoiding social gatherings. The reason? Friends and acquaintances have become somewhat edgy and contentious, so that even civil discussions quickly rise to high decibel levels. Needless to say, the divisive issues mostly relate to world affairs and politics, with conversations rotating in circles!

Truth be told, I am surprised at my own snappy responses and overall sense of frustration. Has my threshold for tolerance gone down or is it something more serious? In an informal tea gathering with some close friends, I broached the subject and asked if they were feeling the same way. Interestingly, all of them complained of sporadic bouts of headaches, sleeplessness and petulance. Once we had diagnosed the malady, it was easier to analyse the reasons for the behavioural change. The consensus was that the upheaval in today's world induced by incompetent, insensitive and corrupt leaders was causing havoc with people's emotional and psychological state. A friend noted that psychiatrists in the United States are having to deal with an increased number of patients who suffer from Post-Trump Stress Disorder! But it's not just Donald Trump—people are generally stressed out about the unfairness and injustices of the new world order. After two hours of sharing frustrations and complaints, we identified the following as the most egregious types of stress-related problems.

Donald Trump Hypertension: There was unanimous agreement that President Trump's provocative and divisive comments and early morning tweets have a direct impact on blood pressure levels. Inflammatory threats to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea; the refusal to denounce the white supremacists and neo Nazis after the violence in Charlottesville; and the racially coded tweets about  hurricane-ravaged Puerto Ricans, all fall into the category of  blood-pressure-aggravating Trumpian statements.

Aung San Suu Kyi Eating Disorder: The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Myanmar leader has condoned what the UN is calling a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya minority in the country's Rakhine State. During the course of our discussions, a friend affirmed that she feels sick and nauseated at Suu Kyi's hypocritical human rights rhetoric and defence of the genocide while Rohingya infants and women are being tortured and killed by Myanmar's military. 

Kim Jong-un Anxiety Disorder: The North Korean dictator's provocative and incendiary statements about using nuclear missiles have alarmed most countries, especially neighbouring South Korea and Japan. We reached a consensus that our anxiety over the possibility of a nuclear war was causing insomnia and frequent breathing problems.

Narendra Modi Depression: My Indian friends in the group admitted that they were suffering from depression due to the rising tide of intolerance and bigotry in Modi's India. They are deeply perturbed by the threat to the country's secular institutions from right-wing Hindu nationalists.

King Salman Disillusionment Disorder: While the Saudi Kingdom claims to be the guardian of Islam, it is creating discord through a divisive campaign against Qatar, Iran and its forays into Yemen. Besides, King Salman's overtly appeasing attitude towards Trump, who labelled all Muslims as "terrorists", has triggered a feeling of isolation and disillusionment among many of my Muslim friends.

Some of you may shrug your shoulders and say: So, what is new about the duplicity and hypocrisy in politics? It's unrealistic, even naïve, to expect a politician to be a "Mother Teresa"—political leaders must be crafty manipulators, even if not inherently dishonest. If that is true, who should we look up to as our role model? Studies show that through a process known as vicarious reinforcement, children emulate the behaviour of individuals whose actions seem to be rewarded. I shudder to think what our politicians are teaching the youngsters who will hold the reigns of our planet in the future.

I wish to end on a positive note. Despite the virtual bankruptcy of leadership in today's world, we have witnessed the rejection of right-wing extremist politics in Europe with the victory of Merkel and Macron. We celebrate the emergence of social activism as a bulwark against the excesses of the political elite. Ordinary people are speaking out against injustices with the help of social media. They are rallying in the corridors of power, challenging inequity, racism and gender discrimination. It is encouraging that the attempts to railroad Obamacare and deprive millions of healthcare, have been aborted by intense public reaction in the US. These examples demonstrate that the voice of the common people cannot be suppressed when they rally together for a common cause—thus lending credence to President Obama's words: "Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it…. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change but in yours."

We, the ordinary citizens, can withdraw into a shell to protect our sanity and hope that the situation will reverse since nature prefers stability and harmony to chaos and discord. Or, we can act as agents of change through protests and activism that could induce a snowball effect and make a difference in the long run. The choice is ours!

Milia Ali is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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