U.S. ELECTION: Respect for human dignity needed

By Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung, PhD, RPP

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Although not actually an old Chinese saying “May you live in interesting times!” is now taken as a Chinese proverb and used repeatedly in the mass media and quoted by popular public figures.

Too, in this U.S. Presidential campaign, some of us might be utterly astonished by how teams of jingoists, often of questionable intent, exploit the most sinister aspects of the human instinct, yet to a certain large crowd, facts seem to be less important than how a candidate can bring on the “feel the feels“ – a brilliantly astute “Colbert-ism” for those with earlier bedtimes. Now it seems truth can be established by indoctrination, through constant repetition of questionable facts and overt un-truths.

What this reveals is much more sinister than some vicious attack on a candidate’s opponent. As the much anticipated Presidential debates have turned into ugly quarrels of a personal nature, the basic discipline of a functioning democratic framework is under attack and being badly tarnished.

It is hard not to see how one candidate’s vulgarity has exacerbated a certain strain of intolerance within society. The hateful tone that pervades Trump’s political rallies has put a spotlight on the severity of fractures in American society. The implications extend well beyond the Beltway. The negative effect of this campaign, on the essential trust of citizenry for their democratically elected governments, is profound. Government, and government accountability to public and civil society groups, are meant to temper the inevitable discontent that arises in a diverse society of individuals who hold different and, sometimes, contradictory beliefs. Instead, fierce and unrelenting rhetoric against the role of government and the social contract has served to widen the cracks. These will be hard to mend after the conclusion of the Presidential race in November.

Meanwhile, when people are given to propaganda, the glow of hope in a society and social harmony grow dim, because these individuals cannot be counted on to take responsibility for their own actions.

Generally speaking, the impulse of crude indoctrination in our public figures and leaders must be resisted in all modern societies.

One might argue that the proper functioning of democracy needs the important support of free and professional journalism. I would also add that a correction is needed at the level of the individual as well.

For far too long, North American society has been driven by adoration of appearance and material outcomes. Perhaps now the “white picket-fenced” dream has grown in scale to Hollywood villas. Perhaps the brutish, aggressive behavior of contestants celebrated in some popular TV game shows has desensitized and trained us into hard noise “apprentices,” copying the bad behavior of those deceitful self-promoting operators. In effect, these reality shows contribute to making concrete the meaning of “ends justifying means”. And perhaps some of us have lived in self-indulging complacency for far too long, so much so that we have forgotten how to flex our muscle of empathy…

The failure to galvanize broad popular consensus around ways to tackle climate change, childhood poverty, or on policies to retrain workers and help them find new jobs, are just a few examples of our, now chronic, failures of empathy.

Part of the problem is the willful exploitation of “The American Dream” trope to build support for elite interests among the decidedly non-elite – which, in reality, comprises most of us.

Thus the task at hand toward mending a broken social fabric will involve fixing all that is bad and ugly in the current media saturation around the persona of a single individual.

At this stage of the Presidential Election campaigning, the kid gloves are off. There may well be more ugliness to come. But as an optimist, I take this moment as an opportunity to participate in a dialogue at the grass-roots level, in order to refocus attention on reason over blind adherence to bluster and hyperbole. Today’s poisonous political discourse has exacerbated tensions in society and distracted from the real issues, at a time when leadership of all stripes (yes, including US leadership) is needed the most – at home and in our international affairs.

Recently, Michelle Obama spoke out powerfully, with considered emotion, on the importance of rejecting misogyny and its associated behaviors, especially with respect to someone running for the highest public office. She called for bringing back a basic standard of human decency. Such basic human decency should be the touchstone of how we treat each other, in politics – crucially, but no less importantly in our day-to-day lives.

Only a respect for human dignity will foster the kind of environment when the hard choices requiring empathy can be considered and supported.

So, in the words of the recently named Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a-changin’”. Let’s make sure they are changing in the direction that will benefit us all – and stop in its tracks the current trajectory that says otherwise!

Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung PhD, RPP is a registered professional urban and regional planner and a published author. She is an Associate with the York Centre for Asian Research, York University, and is serving on the Editorial Board of OMNES – the Journal of Multicultural Society, published in Seoul.

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