A brief reflection about polarization and its effects
By Sergio Guarín León, Fundación Ideas Para La Paz, Colombia.
1. In all societies there are groups that have opposing positions on the way public affairs should be conducted. These positions are explained by the interests, needs and fears of individuals, as well as by their interpretation of reality, the information they have access to and their own experiences.
2. Social life implies the constant clash between these positions, which is known as conflict. The conflict is not negative per se and its management is an essential part of the public debate. When a society can manage the conflict peacefully improvements happen frequently or at least, awareness, new decisions and movements are generated.
3. A very important part of the political exercise is to face these conflicts. Leaders not only represent and defend positions, but their duty is to properly handle the contradictions with the counterparts. It is lawful to affirm that democracies are institutional designs which aspiration is to manage conflicts through deliberation, consensus, agreement and transaction processes.
4. Still, peaceful conflict resolution is not a simple exercise. It is full of distrust and may involve serious differences, recriminations and accusations. In many cases it is common to confuse democracy with good manners, and it is believed erroneously that fiery speeches, belligerent attitudes and direct accusations are the symptoms of polarization.
5. A non-polarized society is not a unanimous society, nor a society in which good treatment prevails or which is free of high-tension moments. In fact, when there are severe conflicts between stakeholders, sometimes it is better for leaders to criticize each other directly and vehemently if that means that other expressions of violence will be avoided.
What we are talking about
6. There are contexts in which the way conflicts are processed and the end result of tension situations, slowly and cumulatively generates remnants of dissatisfaction, distrust and suspicion. And this happens to the point where the different positions are no longer the main focus. In these situations it is key the conviction that the one with whom the conflict is held is a threat, a risk and an enemy.
7. When this happens, the possibility to come to agreements is lost. The ability to argue and negotiate is replaced by moral responses within a logic of support and betrayal. Therefore, the main symptom of polarized societies is not inappropriate speeches but the intimate conviction that opponents are encouraged by interests that we consider "evil", "selfish" or "harmful".
8. Polarization is then a dynamic of relations that occurs when a binary and excluding system is consolidated around the most relevant conflicts. In this system, society is divided between "us" and "others" and the dominant emotions begin to be fear, revenge, envy and desire for justice.
9. This dynamic erodes the resistance and the capacity for agreement, negotiation and adaptation in the face of tensions and conflicts, thus imposing a logic of attack and defense. In these conditions, any activity that turns into tension becomes a reason for crisis that pleads for the need to protect from the other and justifies distrust and prevention towards the interests of the counterpart.
10. Polarization is not due to conjunctural crisis, specific or isolated events. It is a set of interactions that are consolidated over time. In fact, polarization tends to be medium and long term. It surpasses generations and transcends the decisions of individuals. In highly polarized societies, people inherit the conflicts of parents and grandparents.
11. Polarization has very negative effects on societies. Pointed next are some of the most important:
Solidarity based on internal dissent erosion
12. Any fact that expresses a difference of visions is perceived as a direct threat and, therefore, activates a solidarity based on the shared feeling of victimization and the strengthening of ties with those who have similar ideas.
13. This solidarity erodes any internal dissent. People with nuanced ideas find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between silencing their criticisms to their own group and supporting points of view that they share only partially (because they believe in extremes), or risk remaining in isolation because they are certain that their group will consider them traitors and the counterpart will have deaf ears to their position.
14. The consequence is predictable: the extremes are accentuated and the more objective and serene visions end up supporting those who defend the interests of the group. The phenomenon is fed back, because by consolidating the strongest position and least willing to agreements, there are many more possibilities that any fact is perceived as a direct threat to individual interests.
15. By accentuating the contact within the group itself and eliminating trust in the other, the possibilities of real exchange between people who think differently are reduced and, therefore, prejudices, assumptions and rumors begin to surface. No matter how believable or unbelievable the stories are, the sides accept versions that reinforce the counterpart's wickedness.
16. The consequence of this relationship pattern is demonization. And by demonization we mean that the members of the opposite group begin to be seen as dark beings, motivated by the most despicable feelings and desires. This conviction, which is often not very evident, fosters the ignorance of the other's humanity, its denial, its mockery and its contempt. The opposing group is understood as a gang of evildoers, whose main motivation is to hurt. As if they were on a war.
17. This is one of the reasons why, in polarized societies, people believe so often biased versions of information and reproduce fake-news and outlandish messages about the behavior of the counterpart. Demonization, of course, is an extreme form of distrust, that acquires the duality of good / bad, and accentuates fear and threat.
18. Another consequence is a paralysis and blocking attitude. In situations of distrust and generalized prevention, people do not act spontaneously, nor follow their natural motivations. On the contrary, they wait for signals of their leaders, who act as interpreters of the true intentions of the counterpart.
19. This also explains why polarizations are so profitable for extreme political leaders. Given that the political success of this type of leaders depends to a large extent on the sense of protection and authority they can project, they accentuate the mistrust, arguing that it is they, and no one else, who can identify and counteract the selfish interests of others.
20. Reinforcing this behavior, in polarized situations, demands are made in the public sphere that are impossible for the counterpart. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because, distrusting others, I ask for things that I know are impossible to give, and upon verifying it, I show myself and my group that the others are not worthy of trust.
Tolerance towards violence
21. A fourth effect of polarization, which is the most serious of all in society, is the tolerance of groups towards violence against others and the acceptance of ambiguous parameters of morality, within which attacks are justifiable if directed to those who are part of the opposite group. The most extreme version of this behavior is expressed when not only the damage is justified, but when it is promoted. In a way, violence is a type of salvation.
22. On acceptance and support for violence, it is important to note that this is not just physical or obvious violence. Indeed, in many cases, this violence is unleashed in the realm of the imaginary, discourses, culture and stigmatization. Gender violence is a good example of the entire spectrum that these manifestations can accomplish. In these dynamics of interaction there is a huge burden of humiliation and non-dignification.
Undermined public debate
23. We will finish this text by pointing out that polarization is the annulment of nuanced visions and the rejection of stakeholders towards complex interpretations of reality. Therefore, objective data and research with scientific methods lose strength, and the manipulation of information and opinion and extreme messages win it.
24. In a context of this type, people seek and replicate messages that reinforce their initial hypotheses and ideas and avoid conversations that question the premises they consider evident. This complex discussion gives way to a binary vision of reality, in which the friend / enemy concept ends up explaining all the phenomena.
25. In polarization there is a crisis of the narratives. In polarized environments, unique and static narratives are established to explain reality through formulas and theses that cancel any type of conversation between opposites and of solutions identification to the problems we consider most pressing. Hence the importance of creating unexpected meetings and promoting creativity opportunities.