The last two weeks have seen unprecedented social unrest around the world – the democratization of everything is spreading but frankly it’s not a pretty sight. Just think back on the headlines:
- China and Japan facing off over disputed ownership of islands in the East China Sea – with demonstrations and violence against Japanese businesses in China as nationalist sentiment rises, compounded by the anniversary of a politically sensitive incident.
- Demonstrations, violence and deaths across the world from North Africa and the Middle East to Indonesia and Pakistan as Muslims protest over a cheap and nasty film ridiculing Islam, clearly produced by less than a handful of bigots to incite religious turmoil.
- Ongoing strikes and renewed violence as South African miners demand higher wages and clash with security forces, even as some returned to work.
- Massive demonstrations in Portugal and Spain against austerity measures as standards of living fall and unemployment soars – plus renewed demonstrations by Catalan separatists.
- In India, tens of thousands protest against government plans to open the retail trade to foreign investors, as well as rising fuel prices.
- Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, re-elected this year, targeted by up to 50,000 demonstrators in Moscow, calling for an end to his rule.
- In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner’s government facing the largest pot-banging protest (“cacerolazos”) since taking office as people protested over corruption scandals, crime and management of the economy.
- Occupy Wall Street protesters back to mark the anniversary of the movement, although with fewer feet on the street and continued tensions with police.
- Continuing protests over natural resources in Peru, particularly directed at the mining sector, leaving one more person dead this week.
- Ongoing protests over the July election of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, amid accusations of vote-rigging and media collusion, including a cyber-attack this week on government, political and media websites.
- The threat of renewed protests in the Chinese village of Wukan, as elections have not brought the desired changes in government control nor the return of land sold illegally.
The list could go on – frustration and anger is boiling in societies around the world over: their own government’s management of economy and society; perceived threats to livelihoods; inequality; religious insults and intolerance; crime and corruption; and natural resource ownership. It’s a potent cocktail of grievances. The cost to societies in terms of driving divisions and damaging livelihoods and economies is massive. What’s causing the unrest? And what can we do about it?
One school of thought says unrest has always been there, now it is just more, and globally, transparent. Rising connectivity and social media mean pictures of demonstrations can be beamed around the world instantly, the location of the next gathering can be tweeted to followers – and we can share frustrations in social forums. Another school of thought says “yes, transparency has a role” BUT – things really are getting worse on a number of fronts: geopolitical tensions are rising fuelled by resource issues and history in some cases; inequality is rising within societies; many governments are weak, focused on partisan power; intergovernmental institutions are increasingly toothless; and religious intolerance is escalating. There is real potential for conflict if these issues not managed appropriately – we are already seeing deaths and violence over religion. Could this escalate into broader West versus Islam conflict? Could we also potentially see conflict between China, Japan and other Asian nations over territorial disputes? As China and Japan face internal political transitions and deeper-seated social issues, the risk of rhetoric becoming reality is worrying.
So how to not only diffuse tensions and address the symptoms, but also the root causes of the protests? First, deal with the symptoms to allow breathing space to focus on the root causes. Protest and free speech have a clear place in this world; violence and anarchy should not. Pakistan’s foresight in declaring a national holiday to allow the vast majority of moderate Muslims to show their rightful dismay at the film, unfortunately still saw deaths and violence. Second, apply common sense and, if necessary, the rule of law to those fanning the flames. This includes the media, where Google/YouTube are treading a ridiculous line between embracing “free speech” and allowing a source of anger to continue to be broadcast – just take the film down! It is a symbol of one man’s hatred (whatever legal technicality you use to claim that it is not) and not the views of reasonable people around the world. As for French magazine CharlieHebdo publishing satirical cartoons of Mohammed, this is a self-serving publicity stunt, not an expression of “free speech.” Media and the transparency it creates should be greatly valued, but the actions of a few debase the industry – and indirectly fuel the spiral of economic damage and violence. Third, governments need to listen to their people and to the countries with which they are in dispute to understand the issues. Deploying security forces is the easy road – dialog is the more productive, even if it takes time and effort. Cool heads need to prevail over short-term political pressures. Finally, respect and tolerance need to be practiced by all. More people have more choices – and voices – than ever before. In a world that has a myriad of economic, social, political and belief systems we need to learn how to use these choices and voices with the understanding that we are not all alike and will never be.
Ultimately, the root causes of all these protests are deep-seated, whether inequality, economic slowdown, clash of beliefs, or territorial and resource disputes. Building tolerance between different belief systems will require that the peaceful majority find the courage to oust the violent and extremist minorities within their communities. Ordinary Libyans frustrated with a continued cycle of violence and disorder have shown the way in recent days, by starting to drive out Islamist armed militias in Benghazi and Derna. Reshaping economies and societies to prosper in the connected future will be neither easy nor quick. But we need to start, to build a long-term vision of a desired global future, together with all relevant constituencies. Then we need to start to move towards it. This will require unprecedented, non-partisan leadership across countries from governments, businesses, NGOs, communities, religions, media and more – and most importantly, the will of the people. Failing long-term thinking and action on the root causes today, the risk of a “mad, mad world” spiralling from protest into conflict is higher than I even want to contemplate.
I want a better future for my family and the world – you too?