A fist bump away from an end to fearmongering

From Kenya to Sri Lanka, citizens find civic unity in rejecting divide-and-rule tactics by politicians.

A protester in Colombo, Sri Lanka, holds a national flag Aug. 10 at a tent camp that became the focal point of months-long demonstrations against ruling politicians.

In Kenya, where leaders have long stoked tribal divisions to gain power, the Aug. 9 election produced an unusual expression among many citizens. During the campaign, young people would signal to each other with a two-handed fist bump, bringing their thumbs together in a show of oneness over duality. The gesture was a symbolic rejection of the divide-and-rule tactics by politicians.

Such displays of civic unity have become more common in many democracies. Voters have woken up to a common ploy by leaders to manufacture fear of “the other” rather than encouraging followers to embrace the dignity of their fellow citizens and engage in calm discourse over difficult issues. 

During this year’s mass protests in Sri Lanka, for example, the protest site became “a civic space, a safe zone for the country’s religious, ethnic and sexual diversity” in contrast to decades of leaders whipping up factional hatred, according to The New York Times.

“People now openly talk about equality,” said one Sri Lankan protester. The protests led to the ouster of an unpopular president.  

Last year in Israel, many Jewish and Arab citizens protested together to end intergroup violence fueled by the divisive rhetoric of politicians. “It’s not a question of national identity but of values,” one protester told Haaretz. “We can’t let racism break through again.”

In 2019-2020, tens of thousands of Iraqis camped out in major cities in a show of unity against the political practice of divvying up power and oil wealth along religious and ethnic lines, which has only fueled corruption. The protest sites became temporary mini-states of desired secular rule.

In Lebanon three years ago, young people held mass protests aimed at ending the fearmongering between religious groups and at bringing about good governance. In Taiwan, protests known as the sunflower movement have led to an emerging national identity that overcomes old divisions between families from mainland China and native Taiwanese.

This phenomenon is now quite global. “We once thought of a community as a group of people who live in the same geographic area, or who share socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic, or religious characteristics,” Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said in a 2020 speech. “The evolving global context, including the extent to which new technologies have empowered communication and information-sharing at the individual-level, requires us to embrace a far wider definition.”

The United States is not immune to this trend. A survey last year by the Siena College Research Institute found one divisive factor stood out among Americans more than any other. 

“Ringing loud and clear,” the survey found, “is a dissatisfaction with a political landscape in which they say politicians stoke divisions, divide and conquer, won’t work together to address the needs of the people and remarkably can’t be held accountable for misdeeds that are apparent to everyday citizens.”

In any society, people wear a variety of different hats to define themselves. Yet they can also create bonds of affection under the umbrella of an identity based on shared civic ideals. In Kenya, that identity is now more widely shared between individuals, all with a simple fist bump between clenched hands.

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