Web Roundups

Web Roundup: Polarization on the rise

This web-roundup looks at the problem of polarization. Several events during the past month have brought the issue to the forefront. As a result, the web was filled with debates over this increasing political and social polarization that is indeed becoming more and more evident not only in the U.S. but in many societies around the world.

At the more basic level, polarization refers to the split of social or political groups based on opposing views. Over time, the two sides or “poles” get further and further apart. It is in this dynamic that people, be it group members, party affiliates, or the citizens of a country, find it increasingly hard to remain neutral. Indeed, it can be difficult to counter polarization once the process has been triggered because it tends to happen along economic, political and, moral lines, and because it mobilizes affect and emotions as much (or even more) than rational argumentation. If the whole description sounds oddly familiar, it is because processes of polarization have been prominently in the news this month.

In the U.S., the elections have made obvious a polarization running deep within and between political parties. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump was framed along moral lines, as he asked voters to “follow their conscience”, reviving deep divisions in the Republican Party and drawing accusations of betrayal and broken promises. At a different level, the campaign is also exacerbating ingroup-outgroup thinking, splitting Americans along the lines of “us” vs. “them”. The America above all discourse has a strong component of nationalism that is dangerous for many different reasons. Among them, the fact that it offers itself as a justification for hurting people who are not “us”, and that it contributes to internal fragmentation and instability by defining a narrower idea of who truly belongs and who doesn’t, leaving minorities of all kinds outside this category.

Nationalism also fights internal reflection or external criticism, as these threaten the image of power and self-glorification. Fortunately, the reactions against it have been not only strong but creative and fun.

Polarization is also evident between political parties. Even though this election may seem to be particularly polarized, it is interesting and important to note that the split has indeed been building for years and seems to be here to stay. Just as an example, Democrats and Republicans have dramatically different visions about what makes their states “great”. Such polarization of what is “good” reflects just how opposed the ideas of community and goodness are between these two groups.

Exacerbated polarization is clearly not limited to America. The Brexit vote, met with disbelief by liberals, mostly Londoners, and mostly young voters, is the result of a deep fracture in the British society that has been in the make for at least thirty years. The polarization in this case can be seen between Londoners and inhabitants of the rest of the country, between social classes, between generations, and along ethnic groups. Among all the negative impacts of the vote, perhaps one useful consequence of the Brexit vote is that it finally reveals such fractures openly, forcing Brexiters and Non-Brexiters alike to confront it (see more on this here and here).

Yet another case of polarization was made obvious with the failed coup attempt in Turkey, which has deepened pre-existent divisions, and has moved the government to act in ways that seem to conflate dissent with treachery, all in the name of rooting out the “parallel state”. The threat to democracy, and freedom is evident, as is the intolerance to anyone who thinks different.

Social scientists in general and anthropologists in particular have long been interested in the communalities as well as in the differences and divisions along cultural, social, and moral lines. We know that borders are indeed much more fluid and rich than the black and white world painted by divisive processes. Yet, the strong force of polarization makes it harder to see the other as an ally, and to see the world from the other’s point of view. Indeed, it can make it hard to see the other as a fellow human being. The anthropological discipline provides powerful tools to counter these forces. It may be a good moment to consider how these can be used in the current social and political landscape.


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