Mental borders and the clash of ignorance

Mental borders and the clash of ignorance. Photo: María José Varo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Elcano Blog
Photo: María José Varo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Mental borders and the clash of ignorance. Photo: María José Varo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Elcano Blog
Photo: María José Varo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Humanity is on its way to settling in a global village. In a world where physical distances become shorter and information flows at top speed, the concept of borders takes on different forms. There are physical and political borders which are built to separate those who are different, or who believe they are different, even though those who stay within these borders are not always so similar. There are also walls and fences. Since the beginning of this century, the number of these has soared. Today there are at least 63 walls or fences separating adjacent countries.

However paradoxical it may seem, in this global village there are some people who are set on spreading another type of border: mental borders. They are made out of fear and rejection of the different. Using these, some try to make sense of the ever more complex and disorganized reality of the world around us. What is striking about these mental borders is that they can become physical and political borders. The British population gave an example of this in 2016 when they voted for Brexit. By choosing to leave the EU, the majority of British voters believed they were defending themselves against those who are coming in from outside, without giving much consideration to the cost that will have to be paid for this.

Information overload, attraction to extremes, anxiety caused by rapid changes and the diversity which some people turn into battles of identity, are all feeding into a clash of ignorance. New information and communication technologies intensify the sensation of vertigo amongst people who do not have time to delve into the nuances of the confusing realities. The social networks are a privileged way to spread populist rhetoric by politicians who want to take advantage of discontent, fear and hate. Simplistic answers which appeal to gut emotions become more important than explanations which are the result of reflection and complex reasoning.

By following this path, the global village can turn into a “post-factual” world where facts don’t matter and where data and evidence can be denied when it is in someone’s interests, regardless of everything; totally shamelessly. That is what happened with the electoral campaign that ended with Donald Trump in the White House. His speeches plagued by falsehoods, verbiage and obvious signs of ineptitude for the office of President of the United States were not an impediment for millions of voters to elevate him to the post of commander in chief of the world’s first power. The lesson –at least in the short term– is that a racist, misogynist, homophobic, and ignorant candidate who manages to present himself as the saviour of the nation will gain sufficient support to govern, even if he leaves behind a divided and confronted nation.

Few cases make this clash of ignorance more visible than the contrast of categories like ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’. We are talking here about the temptation some people have to view the world in terms of us, the morally superior, and them, the threatening and the barbarians. It should be noted that these positions, even though they don’t represent all Westerners or all Muslims, occur on both sides. For those who see the world in black and white, recurring to this type of abstract simplification gives a sense of security, or satisfaction even. In their view of the world, borders exist to separate us into blocks which are often destined to fight each other.

It is precisely this that the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis by Samuel Huntington proposed, back in 1993. According to Huntington, of the seven or eight (sic) great civilizations that exist nowadays, most of the conflicts are between Muslims and non-Muslims; he even claims that the borders of Islamic civilization are bloody. Without a doubt, Huntington was an ideologist and he knew how to gain influence after the end of the Cold War by replacing the idea of ‘the West versus the rest’ with ‘the West versus Islam’. What was attractive about this thesis was, and still is, exactly its ability to simplify matters, the fact that it is free of nuance, and that it appeals to gut emotions.

Rather than ‘the clash of civilizations’, it is more useful to think of the existence of a ‘clash of ignorance’, as Edward Said put forward in 2001. Ideologists and demagogues opt to attribute the fact that there are conflicts and wars to the differences between cultures and religions. It seems that many of them –including Huntington and Osama Bin Laden– forgot (voluntarily?) that most of the frictions and conflicts over the last decades have occurred within ‘civilizations’ themselves. These internal clashes are caused by different ways of understanding life as well as to the existence of mutually exclusive projects on how to organise their political, social and economic models.

It is tempting to reduce centuries of history to mere religious wars and imperial conquests, leaving aside the history of exchanges, cooperation and the transfer of knowledge and values. However, the mental borders are not only between different cultural blocks, but also within each of the so-called civilisations. This is not a purely academic debate, nor simply entertainment for intellectuals; it has a great implication on the everyday lives of individual people and nations. Those who seek to raise more and more borders and those who fight against it and against the instrumentalisation of ignorance will condition an important part of the future of humanity.

[This text was published originally in the magazine Matador, vol. S.]