Open a newspaper, visit a website or switch on the TV, and it’s easy to feel that society is more polarised than ever. Is that true?
Nadia Mazouz: To start with, I think we need to distinguish between two types of polarisation. Affective polarisation is where individuals or groups show a high level of antipathy towards the members of opposing groups, even to the extent of revelling in their misfortune. Social media has made this form of polarisation not only more visible, but also more common – that’s the prevailing view among sociologists as I understand it.
What’s the other type of polarisation?
Mazouz: Something we call ideological polarisation, which is when all the various attitudes, opinions and values that people have are no longer spread along a continuum but are bunched up at the extremes. There’s some debate about whether this form of polarisation has increased or not. But there are certainly some voices saying that the political middle has shrunk and that the fringes are getting stronger, more outspoken and better organised.
Christoph Stadtfeld: Affective polarisation is also linked to what we call the internet paradox: the World Wide Web was supposed to create a global village square and broaden access to information; yet, far from fulfilling that dream, the internet has become a place where disinformation flourishes and people isolate themselves in echo chambers. I would argue, though, that affective polarisation is not a new phenomenon: social media and other media may have raised its profile in the attention economy, but it also fulfils a basic psychological need that we all share.
Which need is that?
Stadtfeld: The feeling of wanting to belong to a group, to divide the world into “us” and “them”. In recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of specialised niche groups that increasingly regard mainstream politics as their common enemy. Before the internet era, people with unconventional or extreme political viewpoints had little choice but to adapt to the norms of their immediate social environment if they wanted to avoid being completely excluded. But now things are different. People on the fringes can easily find like-minded individuals on the internet to form a group and create a community.
Mazouz: Exactly. It’s a combination of both processes: the fragmentation of society into different niches and the gradual erosion of moderate positions that mediate between the two ends of the political spectrum. Our society has traditionally thrived on dissent, but this new trend is making it more segmented and simultaneously less complex.
That seems counter-intuitive. Surely a more fragmented society would become more complex?
Mazouz: Individuals belong to various groups, and these groups are becoming increasingly alike and therefore more homogeneous. The problem comes when certain lifestyles are automatically tied to specific political ideologies; that impoverishes our society and, ultimately, our democratic discourse.
Stadtfeld: We sometimes talk about portfolios of identities, ideas and lifestyles. As a sociologist, I find it intriguing that certain portfolios are becoming more dominant, while the overall number of portfolios is shrinking. For example, it’s increasingly uncommon that individuals identify as liberal and left-leaning, while holding conservative views on family issues. In other words, people’s lifestyles are becoming more homogenous and more politicised.
Can you give an example?
Stadtfeld: One US study found that you can get a fairly good idea of someone’s political affiliation from their coffee preferences – essentially by asking them whether they would order a pot of black coffee or a flat white to go. It turns out that the flat-white drinkers are very likely to vote Democrat!
Mazouz: These are the kinds of lifestyle choices that people adopt to identify with their own group – and there’s a real concern that this sense of identification is getting stronger. For example, if my group tells me that climate change doesn’t exist, then I, as a member of the group, will adopt that position. So, we’re not only dealing with polarisation, but also with politicisation in the sense of people developing a blind allegiance to their own group.
Is this increasing polarisation also creating new lines of conflict?
Mazouz: Yes. Researchers are now seeing a new fracture line that goes beyond the traditional left/right divide – namely, a cleavage between cosmopolitan attitudes and communitarian or even nationalist attitudes.
A disintegrating centre plus increasing fragmentation and the politicisation of lifestyle choices: just how stable is society if we keep splitting into smaller groups?
Stadtfeld: Just like any other group, a society needs norms and a narrative to maintain its cohesion and to make people want to be a part of it. For example, Switzerland takes great pride in its ability to solve conflicts through consensus and compromise. The search for compromise is a norm, but it’s also part of the shared narrative that holds the country together.
Mazouz: What keeps a society stable is a willingness to cooperate. In order to cooperate, we need some idea of how we want to live together. The problem with affective polarisation and fragmentation is that they chip away at the number of people who can actually agree on the basic requirements for coexistence, such as the need for mutual respect.
That’s something politicians often seem to struggle with, too...
Stadtfeld: Many of them – those who are on the fringes, for example – obviously have a vested interest in feeding divisions in society.
Mazouz: Right. People like that are eager to further undermine whatever mutual respect we have left. But democracy can only thrive if we accept each other as free and equal individuals, and not as enemies. That’s why I find the current state of affairs so alarming.
Respect is clearly important. But in the age of “alternative facts”, it seems we can’t even agree on a common ground for discussion.
Mazouz: Current events are making a farce out of one of the central tenets of the Enlightenment – namely, that people should use their own capacity for reason. The reality is that more and more people are getting most of their information from platforms that cast doubt on the very legitimacy of traditional epistemic authorities such as science.
How can we counter this increasing polarisation?
Stadtfeld: As a society, we need to create opportunities for people to build relationships that span different groups and communities, because it is these relationships that ultimately give rise to new groups. I’m thinking in particular of housing and education policies that encourage diversity, or sports clubs that bring different people together and get them talking. But any group or institution, however small, can have a positive impact – by encouraging us to engage with others, for example. Here at ETH, I think we should be fostering social networks that include students from every group. Networks like these sometimes emerge when students meet in seminar or mentor groups that are put together at random.
If I, as an individual, want to change my attitude towards people who think differently from me, what specific steps would you recommend?
Stadtfeld: Living life with curiosity and without inhibitions. Often, it’s only when we talk to people with opposing views that we realise how much we actually have in common. It’s also good to develop a thicker skin and not to immediately fly off the handle when someone comes out with an opinion that conflicts with our own.
Mazouz: A bit of self-reflection would also be helpful. We may consider ourselves to be cosmopolitan individuals who support diversity and are always open to hearing different opinions, but I’ve also noticed a tendency to show real disdain for people we think of as intolerant. That, in itself, is a form of affective polarisation. If we really believe that people should stop fuelling division, we need to practice what we preach.