Political Polarization and the Importance of Reading
(Natasya Dewi Shafira, English Editor Intern at LIPI Press)
May 17 was set to be Indonesia’s National Book Day in 2002 by the former Minister of Education, Abdul Malik Fadjar, with hopes that this annual commemoration can be a national-scale tradition that promotes literacy and increases the populace’s interest in reading. However, as COVID-19 struck and people are trapped by the consequences of the pandemic, reading activities have hit the rock bottom of the priority list—not only of students, but of all ages. That is unfortunate, considering the importance of reading for Indonesians in various aspects. Books make us informed about various topics, and as they often deal with issues of race, gender, down to the economy, the power of reading thus extends to include the political realms.
When we talk about politics, it is only natural that people are divided along the ideological and policy preferences lines. However, when antipathy and the desire to champion individual beliefs are deeper than the willingness to learn about differing views, political polarization will come to a boil and endanger democracy. In such a case, reading can be a useful channel that facilitates the calls for learning. This article will explore how political polarization in Indonesia is likely to be amplified during the pandemic, then argues that the need for reading is thus only increasing.
Political Polarization in Indonesia
Frequent sight of collaboration between elites of different ideological beliefs makes researchers synthesize that Indonesia is the least polarized country in Asia.1 If the synthesis is made through comparisons with other Asian countries, say Malaysia, then it does hold some truth. But if we were to analyze Indonesia as a single unit, independent from the situation of other countries, the realities on the ground reflect the opposite. In fact, just a few years ago, we have seen how divided the country can be in terms of politics during the 2017 Jakarta’s gubernational and the 2019 national election.
Before we delve deeper into the discussion, we need to first have a clear understanding of what polarization is. Generally, political polarization encompasses social and political divisions involving two or more groups in society. It occurs when subsets of the population adopt opposite or contradictory cultural norms and practices, ideological orientations, policy preferences, or partisan attachments.2 While differing views is natural to exist in a democracy, on a point when antipathy and the desire to champion individual beliefs are deeper than the willingness to learn about differing views, political polarization will only come to a boil and endanger democratic processes. In concert with similar individuals, people start to make separation between ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ and look at differences as conflictual.3
In the context of Indonesia, religion has influenced and been at the forefront of politics, creating political cleavages within the society. There are people who identify themselves as Islamists, advocating for more formal role of Islam than just a mere reference (“Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa”) in the governance, and pluralist, who supported the maintenance of a secular system—with rather neutral institutions and fair laws that can protect minorities accordingly.4 Both groups insist that they are better than the other and can bring about a better system and policies for Indonesia. As much as it is focused on the issues of governance and policy disagreements, it is also identity-driven, fueled by a set of fears and sentiments.5
The most evident polarization happened in 2017 all the way to 2019. In the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, faced opposition from hardline Islamists who claimed that, as a Christian, Ahok had no rights to govern a Muslim-majority population.6 As a pluralist, Ahok told the press that they were being “lied to” by the Quran, which eventually led the group to rally harder against him and demanded Ahok to be prosecuted for blasphemy.7 Seeing as how the tactic was proven effective, Prabowo decided to join forces, too, with hardline Islamists in his campaign for the presidential election in 2019. Joko Widodo, also known as “Jokowi”, was made a target of smearing, depicted as an enemy of the ummah for his plural politics; in which Jokowi responded by saying that Prabowo’s victory would only hurt Indonesia’s national identity as a pluralist country.8 The mentioned examples showed us two important realities. First is that people have been fighting mindlessly over politics. They are ready to ignite conflicts just to defend their political stance and interest. Second, and most importantly, it reflected the prevalence of polarization in Indonesia.
The emergence and tenacity of polarization can be attributed to the exploitation done by elites who used differences as repertoire to gain political leverage. However, one thing that is often sidelined from our discussion is how the lack of understanding between civilians contributes significantly, too, to the severity of polarization. The thirst of putting an idea to the forefront without the desire to consider opposing ideas is what worsens the polarization.
The Pandemic and Political Echo Chamber
Humans are highly attuned to those with the same mindset and beliefs, that is an inherent nature that one could not just bypass. However, when we are exposed to only views or opinions that affirms our beliefs, we become wired into thinking that it is the only righteous one and start vilifying others—this is what we call an echo chamber. The behavior that comes out of this echo chamber would revolve around one having difficulties to comprehend and accept different views, the likelihood to dismiss objections to their opinions, and the tendency to disregard dissenters as depraved9—indicating the process of radicalization overall.
The way out of this echo chamber is, among others, hearing and talking to people with differing—or even better, opposing—views. It would enable us to perform what Johnson and Johnson call perspective-taking, the ability to consider the thoughts and feelings of someone else to look beyond personal view.10 Having assessed it, the conversation built will force us to contemplate on our understanding, be aware of our bias, and push us to exchange ideas. As such, we will be put in a constant state of unfolding.
An observation conducted by Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy for the New York Times substantiated the statement.11 They put together a total of 526 people with differing views to engage themselves in a four-days discussion. They talked through policy proposals with little to no mention of whom the proposals came from, debated about issues concerning foreign policy, the economy and environment, immigration, and were asked to bring in their respective observations and life experiences. In the end, the majority of participants said that, despite not changing their minds, they became more informed and understanding of people with fundamentally different beliefs.12 It showed that when we let our bubble burst, we become more accepting of differences, pertaining to political views as well.
The restrictions on human interactions due to the pandemic, however, have limited—if not deprived—the two effective means of such political socialization: direct day-to-day dialogues and formal education. Social media has not been of help either. Studies have reported that, on the internet, people can still create a filter barrier for themselves; restricting the feedback that they receive, outing challenging inputs, and in the end enabling them to once again amalgamate only with those who chime in with their views.13 Not to mention that some portals do provide biased, distorted information.14 In other words, the status quo is likely to intensify the social political divides as it allows people to lock themselves up in their respective bubble, perpetuating the polarization.
Reading as Tools to Combat Political Polarization
Within the given context, the last vestige that we should make a great use of is reading. To better conjunct it with our discussion, one needs to understand that the benefit of reading actually stretches beyond just personal enjoyment. It matures—if not develops—of our political perceptions.
Books contain more than just groundless, fiction-based narratives; many of them follow the lives of individuals and tell what they have gone through, unpacking the driving force behind their respective beliefs. Some of them even detail the claims that each group is defending and explore the ways through which they think the government could accommodate their interests. The attributes presented within the passage, I concede, would not be of sufficient representation and are to be reviewed regularly to best reflect the real circumstances; however, it makes room for understanding and blasts open the doors for further learning.
As we delve into the pages, we get to analyze different elements that constitute a standing; we get to “hear” the main ideas of what conjured up a view. The more we read them, the deeper our understanding then becomes about a particular group. Among others, I argue that two crucial benefits of reading can help us combat political polarization.
First, as we get to discover different histories and obtain a glimpse of diverse backgrounds, we become more aware of how different things can affect people and shape their stances. It allows us to empathize with other groups—down to the most trivial differences. Understanding the difference in firmly-held beliefs that undergirds the polarization, also putting into account that the fight for recognition is considered a moral fight (loyalty to the religion and identity, an act of solidarity), the ability to empathize and respect different views are thus critical to ease the polarization. In the end, instead of enforcing our standard of righteousness, we begin to understand the perspectives of people with different senses of right and wrong—then eventually come to embrace it.
Second, reading helps us develop our analytical thinking. As we process the information about different groups and make connections out of their claims, we can identify the ways to really address the actual issue at hand. In other words, we gain the intellectual capitals that we can use to better comprehend and discuss existing contentions. This is currently not present in Indonesia, reflected through how thus far, antagonism is rather fueled by a set of sentiments and stereotypes. Noting that identities have become so closely tied to politics in Indonesia, equipping ourselves with analytical thinking will condition us to avoid ad hominem debates, eradicating irrelevant animosity and securing our unity.
The overall improvement on national political polarization might still be far from foreseeable. Providing solutions to an issue of such scope is not within the capacity of this writing, but learning opposing views while enhancing our critical capacity would prevent us from fighting mindlessly over politics. We can also pass the knowledge we have obtained onto other people, transforming the debate to be more of higher quality. At the bare minimum, then, we could play a leading role in driving the polarization in a way that is not, or less, damaging.
In this pandemic, reading holds the capacity to bridge the divide and repair the trend. To commemorate National Book Day, I would suggest that we start reading books that are out of our “comfort zones” and habituate ourselves to squeezing knowledge out of it. Not only will this be in line with the government agenda to improve the country’s literacy, it will also enrich our own understanding of the world in general, and Indonesia's distinguished political cleavages in particular.
- Slater, Dan. & Arugay, Aries. Aries A. Arugay. Polarizing Figures: Executive Power and Institutional Conflict in Asian Democracies. American Behavioral Scientist 62, 104 (2018).
- McCarty, Nolan. Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know. (Oxford University Press, 2019).
- Iyengar, Shanto et. al. The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science 22, 129–132 (2019).
- Warburton, Eve. Deepening Polarization in Indonesia. in Carothwes, Thomas. & O’Donohue, Andrew (eds.). Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2020).
- Fealy, Grey. Indonesia’s Growing Islamic Divide. The Strait Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/indonesias-growing-islamic-divide (2019).
- See also Warburton, 2019: 27–29.
- See also Warburton, 2019: 27–29.
- See also Warburton, 2019: 29.
- Talisse, Robert. Political Polarization is about Feelings, Not Facts. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/political-polarization-is-about-feelings-not-facts-120397 (2019).
- Boland, Richard Jr. & Tenkasi, Ramkrishan. Perspective Making and Perspective Taking in Communities of Knowing. Organization of Science 6, 362–365 (1995).
- Badger, Emily. & Quealy, Kevin. These 562 Voters Represent All of America, and They Spent A Weekend Together. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/02/upshot/these-526-voters-represent-america.html (2019)
- See also Badger & Quealy, 2019.
- Pariser, E. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (Viking, 2011).
- Lanier, J. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Penguin Books, 2011).