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Essay: Across the divide

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, December 10, 2018  /  09:54 am
Essay: Across the divide

Connection: Seniors Cornelius RJ and Queensy Lovenia pose in front of the mural they created with their classmates. (JP/Aman Rochman)

Susanna (not her real name), a 30-year-old lesbian, Christian Manadonese woman from North Sumatra endured a great deal of prejudice for her triple minority status. Until one day she had to confront her own prejudice against people from outside her own tribe.

Susanna was friends with a Muslim lady named Siska (not her real name either) who had always been conservative, but maintained a fairly open mind until she shocked her liberal-leaning friend with her anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-Chinese and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) tirades. At some point, she also tried to “cure” Susanna’s homosexuality.

That was when Susanna decided to back away from the friendship. 

A few years later, Siska called Susanna again and asked her to meet up. Susanna embarrassingly admitted her own prejudice to me, that she was prepared so as not to be surprised if Siska arrived wearing a long black robe with niqab (face veil), recalling their last conversation years ago, wondering if her friend had been radicalized. As if radicalization could always be gauged from one’s fashion statement.

As it turned out, Siska’s appearance did change — but not to the degree Susanna had anticipated. She wore a bright red hijab and looked nice in it, too. The next thing Susanna did was ask Siska whether she still allowed herself to smoke (she did) — assuming women in hijab would not even touch a cigarette. Susanna laughed at her own sense of prejudice. Fortunately, however, Siska no longer felt the need to lecture her like she once did.

Nevertheless, Susanna remained as curious now as she was then — what drew Siska to act the way she did a few years ago? Was it just a phase? But Susanna did not feel right asking her.

Our prejudice against people from different social groups and with differing ideological stances disconnects us from them and in actuality makes us lonelier. Susanna’s recounting of her recent experience breaking her own prejudicial barrier against her friend fit nicely with a book that I am currently reading as I write this essay: Identity and Violence – the Illusion of Destiny ( 2006 ) by 1998 economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen.

In the book, translated beautifully from English into Indonesian by academic-cum-activist Arif Susanto, Sen criticizes the proponents of the “clash of civilizations” theory — first coined by the “butcher of Vietnam” scholar Samuel Huntington — who tend to reduce social groups into one monolithic set of mental characteristics. The set of mental characteristics of one social group, he supposes, will collide against the monolithic set of characteristics possessed by its polar opposite social group.

People are always made up of more than just one defining social identity. I can be a conservative Christian while still being a firm believer in feminism, working as a journalist for a politically liberal-leaning newspaper while still writing advertorials for companies on the side.

Furthermore, people are always heterogeneous even within one shared social group. Their religious attitude does not always correspond with their social behavior either. For instance, a conservative Christian might have a strong anti-gay stance, but that does not prevent him from being friends with a homosexual.

Due to my triple minority status (gay Christian Chinese-Indonesian), like Susanna, I used to be afraid of people from the hegemonic social group as well. Yet, my experiences have led me to believe it isn’t that hard to break through our own social identity and ideological barriers.

The problem nowadays is that while we campaign for inclusivity, we often exclude those we believe are against us, or beneath us. Instead of embracing them, we alienate them (and sometimes call them names). Honey draws the bees. You can convince people of the validity of your own views more effectively if you try to comprehend your opponents’ perspective. Instead of slamming them with criticism, why not try kindness and give them the benefit of the doubt?

If only we, who proclaim ourselves as liberal thinkers, could embrace people like Siska with kindness, instead of prejudice, not only would we be able to break through our loneliness caused by the “clash of civilizations” school of thought; we might also be able to somehow mitigate the deep socio-political division and brutal conflicts that currently rock our world.

As Italian writer Giuseppe Catozzella — whose 2014 novel Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid examines the European immigrant crisis through the eyes of an aspiring Muslim female runner from Somalia — told me once: Do not be scared to start a dialogue with the Other because eventually, people are just people.

As my experience receiving kindness from strangers in many foreign countries during my business trips has shown me, this much I know is true.

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