Since I began expressing my opinions in public, various labels have been attached to me. That is normal – what else can you expect when you are a public figure. However, the interesting thing is the content and alteration of the labels themselves. In recent times, a new term has been used towards me – “marginal.” It has, of course, been used towards others too – I would not have written this article about me alone.
The seemingly fashionable use of a particular label at any given time tells us something about our society. This is exactly what I want to find out: what the recent branding of individuals as “mainstream” or “marginals” reflects.
“That Nodia has become totally marginalized”
If “mainstream” means being in the prevailing current, “marginal” literally means being on the outer fringes, cast-out from the prevailing current. Those who are in the “mainstream” think as the majority of people do, whereas a “marginal” is out of step with the opinions of the majority or, in other words, is out of step with the current fashion.
Which one is better? For many it is very important to be where most “people,” i.e. the majority, stands. Such people, however, are sometimes called “conformists”– yet another negative label. So, there are two groups of people: the first group, which calls the second group “marginals” who, in response, call the first group “conformists.” We thus get a symmetrical (albeit quantitatively unequal) separation each side of which is happy for different reasons. One side is happy because they stand with the people, whereas the other is happy because they follow their own personal consciences and do not give a damn about the opinion of the majority.
The strangeness of the Georgian situation is that the words “marginal” and “conformist” have been used interchangeably to attack the same opponent. For example, yesterday I was considered “conformist” and today I have become “marginal”.
How can this be explained? That we do not bother to properly grasp the meaning of words and notions is one thing. We might catch a relatively new word which seems suitable for branding or denigrating an individual and that alone is enough for us to start using it without considering what it actually means.
The main issue, however, is ambiguity of our values. Is it better for me to defend an unpopular opinion which I think is correct or should I tailor my opinion towards whatever direction the wind blows? In Georgia people like to boast about their uniqueness and individual creativity yet, as they do so, at the same time they call others “marginals.”
In general, this means that we are a failed and non-structured society. Society should be built around a certain consensus on values. We purportedly respect individual freedoms, yet at the same time cannot put up with the idea that an individual should follow his/her own reasoning and conscience and not the opinion of the “people” or the majority. A form of psychological blackmail – “You must be with us or risk being marginalized” – is popular and sometimes even effective.
The Political and Cultural Mainstream
For a contemporary person “marginality,” that is being in conflict with his/her social circle, is a normal and acceptable, though perhaps emotionally unpleasant, condition. But at the political level, marginalization from the mainstream is tantamount to death.
Just a little while ago the word “marginal” was used by totally different people to brand a set of totally different targets. In particular, that is how the supporters and sympathizers of the government of the United National Movement (UNM) described the so-called “cage-cell” opposition in 2009, which blocked the road in front of parliament with cages symbolizing prison cells during a months-long street campaign to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili. Such branding meant that back then the UNM supporters were themselves “mainstream”. Today, the roles have been reversed: if one dares to say anything supportive of the UNM, he/she will instantly be called a “marginal.” Despite such classifications, I think the core of people on either side has remained the same – most of those around me still stick to the positions they held three or four years ago.
What has happened? For me the best explanation of the paradox is that no political mainstream exists in Georgia. Consequently, dividing politicians into either marginal or mainstream camps is devoid of any sense. This is one of the important ways by which we differ from developed western democracies. In the West a political mainstream, or the center, really exists and this is opposed from the left and the right by extreme groups (i.e. being on the outer fringes, or marginal). Although sometimes blurred, boundaries clearly exist between these factions. We have nothing of the kind in Georgia. One who might be considered an important political figure today may hardly be recalled by anyone tomorrow. The butt of a political joke yesterday is the chairperson of a parliamentary committee today. The inexperience of our political elite corresponds to the failure of society.
This situation should not be confused with something else. Dominant and quite stable cultural attitudes, a “cultural mainstream” of sorts, exist in Georgia. Such attitudes are less volatile and change much slower than political attitudes. Public opinion polls prove this: after the October parliamentary elections a radical change has been seen in indicators concerning the likability factor of politicians, but people’s attitudes towards other issues remained the same. Recent polls tell us much about what the majority of the population think: they still regard the Orthodox Church as the most highly respected institution in Georgia, as the key guardian of national values and many wish for it to have influence over all spheres of life and to enjoy privileges over any other denomination; the country is again perceived as a nanny state that will settle all problems (save those related to the weather or marriage); the majority wants Georgia to be a strong and independent state and to join NATO and the European Union; Russia is still perceived as the enemy, even though good relations with it are considered necessary; democracy, for the majority of the population, is, first and foremost, associated with the freedom of speech (i.e. the freedom to curse government); and homosexuality is believed to be a vice, and so on and so forth.
Politicians may disagree with such attitudes and perceptions, but, unless they are suicidal, will not lash out against them. Their political steps may sometimes contradict dominant perceptions (for example, when implementing liberal economic reforms or defending minority rights), but they will try to cover such deviations up with something else – with words at the very least, although with deeds is better.
All the main (and indeed all the more peripheral) political parties in Georgia have tried to portray themselves as the best advocates and defenders of the cultural mainstream. One would have had to have been blind not to have seen that during the last election campaign the Georgian Dream clearly outstripped the UNM in exploiting two important components – religious nationalism and the idea of the nanny state. This also explains the result of elections together with the profound effect of the prison videos depicting the degrading treatment of inmates. The UNM was also seeking a place in that same mainstream, portraying itself as the defender of a strong and independent state and, at the same time, acting as a nanny, feeding citizens with promises of thousands of lari worth of vouchers in lieu of mother’s milk.
Each of us expect different things from the government, but the competition over who will better interpret the cultural mainstream is a necessary component of democratic politics. However, contending that only one party is “mainstream” whereas its opponent automatically becomes marginalized is a demonstration of authoritarianism and not democracy. The UNM was, and still is, mainstream as well as the Georgian Dream. The same holds true for the opposition of 2009, even though it used those methods characteristic of marginal groups in developed democracies. Democratic pluralism is possible within the boundaries of the cultural mainstream. That a political group is in the minority at a given moment does not at all mean that it is “marginal.” The wheel of political fortune spins from one direction to the other, but the interests and aspirations of society remain relatively stable.
The Georgian Mainstream and Threat of Marginalization from the Developed World
The Georgian “mainstream” is somewhat conflicted. While it is mainstream to strive for the defense of our national identity, culture and traditions, it is also mainstream to seek modernization and a place in the Western world. Our mainstream thus involves a constant balancing act between these two goals and any serious political force in Georgia always has to develop its own combination of these two objectives.
Against that backdrop, the majority of what is said in Georgia about the “mainstream” and “marginality” is nothing more than ordinary demagogy used as a weapon in ongoing political bickering. As some ideologues of the winning force discovered after the elections, it is easier and much more practical to argue that you are “mainstream” than it is that you are right – opponents will find the former card much more difficult to trump.
There is, however, one circumstance which is indeed worth emphasizing. Certain attitudes and opinions, for example, openly xenophobic statements, which developed societies perceive as being relegated to the more extremist margins, are mainstream in Georgia. In the West not only would the notorious Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali be branded “fascist”, but so too would a large segment of other Georgian print media. Such newspapers would be simply not be published there – courts would impose penalties after penalties on them and to be seen holding a copy in your hands would be considered shameful. The situation is quite the opposite in Georgia. In the pre-election period, Georgia’s future Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili not only stooped to give an interview to Asaval-Dasavali, but also publicly praised it for its “national and civil position.”
Taking a cynical view of politics that was absolutely rational behavior: Asaval-Dasavali and other tabloids reflect the opinions of quite a large segment of society whose votes the Georgian Dream badly needed to defeat the UNM monster. Thus, our current prime minster showed sound political wisdom: he managed to have Georgia’s Republican Party, hated by that newspaper, stand next to him while, at the same time, was able to gain the support of ultra-nationalistic xenophobes. Nicollò Machiavelli would have been proud of him.
Such actions, however, make some of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s team, who apart from having the desire to be in power also have claims of being enlightened, uncomfortable. After all, as the saying goes, “a man is known by the company he keeps.” However, the perfect way out of such an inconvenience would merely be to say: “This is the mainstream, pal; we cannot become marginal like you.”
Everything is crystal clear. Excuse me for banality, but we have a government which deserves to be in charge of a country where Asaval-Dasavali is one of the most popular papers. That is what the victory of democracy does. Another conclusion can be clearly formulated from this: if Asaval-Dasavali, as well as First Vice-Speaker of Parliament Manana Kobakhidze and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Diaspora and Caucasus Issues Gubaz Sanikidze, known for their nationalistic and xenophobic statements, are our mainstream, then Georgia, as a country, appears to be extremely marginal. In other words, we are out of step with the prevailing current of the modern world. Hosanna to mainstream!