In Greek mythology, Pandora’s box was actually a jar that was in the possession of the Greek God Prometheus, that she opened to unleash sickness, death, and a horde of other evils on this world. In the context of this post however, Pandora’s box is referring to what we, as a species have unleashed on each other, particularly in the recent era of resurgent populist politics.
Before I proceed, I have to share a disclaimer. I’m from India and I grew up there till I was 17. It’s still home for me and my parents are still there. However, for the majority of the last 15 years, I’ve lived in many different places with particularly long stints in the US, UK and now Finland. Given that, I feel a certain sense of closeness and belonging to all four of these locations and am quite invested in their political realities because it directly affects people and places I care about.
The political realities are in an interesting phase at the moment, as the Finnish election just finished last month, the Indian election is ongoing, there’s a possible second Brexit referendum in the UK coming up (or I hope there is) and the US is just entering into the primary phase since next year, they will have their own election. I originally considered not discussing Finland as I assumed the political realities here are in a far more sane place compared to the rest, but unfortunately, the election results have indicated otherwise.
In an election that revealed a lot about the growing divide, while the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Greens showed gains since the last election, the populist, ethno-nationalist Finn party was unfortunately the 2nd largest party, getting just one seat less than the SDP. At this point, the words populist and ethno-nationalist ought to automatically reveal a lot of what they stand for, particularly from the perspective of a pronounced anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-refugee stance that’s often bundled in with being intolerant of LGBTQ+ rights. Seeing a party that stands for all this emerge as the 2nd largest party, with that final, single seat difference being determined by a very narrow recount, was a depressing sight for me as a non-EU residence permit holder. It genuinely made me wonder how many people, outside of my wonderful academic circle, see me, a person of color, as this outsider who shouldn’t be here.
Combining this outcome in Finland with with what’s been happening in India, US, UK and even Brazil in the last few years (starting from 2014) and I have really felt like someone opened Pandora’s Box. It isn’t just that parties that espouse horrible, majoritarian or extreme values have been elected that bothers me. It isn’t just the level to which they have blatantly begun to legislate against the most vulnerable in their societies that upsets me. What I struggle with the most is the level to which so many seemingly normal people, like the average person walking down the street, have felt increasingly emboldened to voice the racism, bigotry and intolerance that they hold within, or worse, act on it. Seeing this happen, at seemingly increasing rates, has been horrible and has brought with it a sense of helplessness as well as this sense of illusions being shattered.
Until these last few years, I was still naive enough to believe in fantasies about how people are fundamentally good and how it is important to separate who they are from the politics they champion. I foolishly believed (or wanted to believe) that people vote for extreme political entities, not necessarily out of active eagerness and enthusiasm for their policies, but rather out of a more apathetic ignorance. However, these last few years have brought these mistaken ideas to an end as I have realized just how far they’re willing to go to stand by their tribalist choices. I’ve realized how much they’re willing to ignore the bigotry, violence, vitriol and hatred that characterizes the political reality of Brexit, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro and other such movements. Worst of all, I’ve also started to notice how much they actually revel in the cruelty inflicted on the “other”, and somehow that “other” is always defined by members of an already oppressed and vulnerable race, religion, gender, sexuality or caste.
Whether it’s the inhumane border practices, the trans ban, the constant attack on women’s rights, the cruel machinations of ICE, or the immigration bans in the US; or even the draconian (and seemingly intentional) disenfranchising of Muslim citizens via the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in parts of India — the way these horrid and often directly government driven policies have been welcomed and even cheered by many has been awful to see. It has also convinced me that I was wrong about the illusions I previously believed in — it is simply not possible to ignore the politics a person is willing to tolerate.
In many cases, it genuinely feels like, “the cruelty is the point”. Those five words from the title of Adam Serwer’s brilliant article in the Atlantic last year were written with the American context in mind. However, just see this excerpt below where he captures exactly why supporters seem to continue to throng to such leaders.
I genuinely believe that the last part — the part about how the cruelty makes them feel good, proud, happy and united, applies to more than just the US. Given how far people are willing to go to stand by their political choices and how much vileness they’re willing to ignore, it applies to supporters of all such movements. This is why, the things you’re willing to tolerate, ignore and support, even after it’s clear that it’s wrong and cruel and even if you have alternatives that are clearly and by far “lesser evils”, it says a LOT about the person you are.
This is why I can no longer separate politics from the person.
Who you choose to vote for reflects what you believe in and what you stand for as a person. If you choose to vote for hate, choose to vote for someone who actively encourages violence against minorities, or in some cases, actively pushes for legislation that hurts minorities, how am I supposed to reconcile that with you being a “good” person in any way? If you’re willing to ignore (or worse enjoy) all the harm inflicted on the already suffering “other” because it doesn’t directly affect you or anyone in your circle or because their policies benefit you in some way, how am I to consider you a person who has any empathy? Surely even a person with a modicum of humanity and empathy in them would see what’s wrong in voting for these people, especially when you have alternatives that, despite their own flaws, would not inflict such cruelty?
I know some people will still strongly feel that it’s not fair to judge them on their political choices, but surely nothing says more about who you are as a person, what you support , or worse are willing to ignore when you’re benefitting or are unaffected. I think these tweets sum it up best.
This brings me to the point of this long outpouring of words — Pandora’s box. I truly believe that these last few years have unleashed the worst of what’s within humans. I also can’t help but feel that we’re at a crucial conjecture in our journey of humanity and human society on this planet, especially now that it’s open for all to see, how much cruelty lies within possibly half of the population that would seemingly continue to vote for and support these political movements.
What happens if, say in the upcoming elections, these parties are voted out of power and someone far saner comes in, whether it’s the Democrats in the US or the Congress in India or any anti-Brexit party in the UK?
Do we suddenly go back to pretending these people didn’t revel in the cruelty?
Do they go back to hiding their true nature and do we ignore all that happened and move on like these people didn’t actively support making life harder for the ones who already suffer the most?
I don’t know what the answer is but for me, I know I would find it next to impossible to just forget and move on.
How do I ignore and forget about the time when someone argued that Muslims don’t belong in India and advocated that the threat of a genocide could drive them out?
How do I ignore and forget the extent to which someone defended the cruelty and oppression of minorities because the same politicians who enabled that, also ensured that privileged people like this person got to pay less taxes?
How do I move on from someone denying the existence of trans people and thinking it’s ok to turn them into a joke because their governments policies are geared towards stripping away trans rights as well?
How do I
I want to have the energy to believe that for many of the people who still stand by Trump or Modi or any other such leader, it is a question of being ignorant or misinformed or having a misdirected sense of fear. I just don’t anymore because it’s exhausting to constantly keep giving people that benefit of the doubt, only to have them prove that their support is not accidental or because of ignorance but rather it’s a choice because the prejudice against the “other” resonates. This is especially the case when you see them becoming even more entrenched in their cult of personality despite increasing evidence of the cruelty associated with it, and a complete lack of any resemblance of good governance.
So coming back to the question in the title — How do you close Pandora’s Box?
I don’t know how. All I know is that I hate that it was opened in the first place and I can’t help but be simultaneously angry and overwhelmed by the cruelty in our species.
The worst part in all this of course, is how, while half the population is reveling in inflicting all this harm on the “other”, we’re also continuing to destroy the only planet we have while ignoring the warnings from every climate related scientist around about the irreparable harm we’re causing. We’re ignoring the grave signs about how our climate situation is a ticking time bomb that these political movements seemingly don’t give a damn about changing. This is why I believe this image of Pandora’s box is seemingly appropriate.
So how do we undo the damage done to the fabric of society while also finding a way to come together and prevent this world from becoming inhospitable for future generations?
I don’t know how, I wish more people cared and in the end, all I have left is this sense of strange optimism that this might change with future generations with people like Greta Thunberg sounding the clarion call. I just hope that this isn’t too late, otherwise the hope is all we have left (**) while we actively embody this cartoon.
**Random fact — This last bit about hope being all we have left, curiously connects back to the Pandora’s box myth. In the myth, “hope” is curiously among the contents of the box and depending on what interpretation of the myth you choose, when all the contents of the box are unleashed, “hope” is all that remains (though if you were to listen to Nietzsche though, this is the greatest of evils because all it does is extend our torment