Footprints

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POLARIZATION ANYONE? by Gerry van der Linden

28 November 2021

Early this week a friend in the Philippines asked me to explain the violent protests in Holland last weekend. His impression had always been of the Dutch as a sober, tolerant people and he could not understand these recent events. By comparison, Filipinos who had faced much more severe Covid restrictions had not protested at all.

I replied that my wife Didit and I spend a couple of months each year in Amsterdam and the questions he raised are often in our mind as well. We are frequently tempted to suggest to protesters over there to spend a few months in the Philippines so that they realize how well off they are, but that would of course be pointless. During the pandemic, the Dutch social security worked well with income support and the like. Nobody went hungry, nobody lost their homes, and for those that lost their jobs there was income support. The lockdowns have of course had some psychological impact but why are so many people so angry?

One is tempted to think that they are just spoiled but that would be too easy.

My understanding comes in two parts. The first is that people in Holland, and in Western Europe more generally, have a spirit of egalitarianism and individualism. You cannot tell them to just do something and if they don't like something they will not hesitate to speak up. That is good for democracy (although not so good for the quality of service in restaurants) and I wish more of that spirit existed in the Philippines. In Holland, everybody always has a chance to give their opinion about everything and while that makes for slow decision making, it has made it one of the richest countries in the world.

The second is the pernicious influence of social media. Like everywhere in the world people get trapped in their own 'echo chamber' and over time develop alternative realities. It is impossible to use rational arguments to convince them, as I have repeatedly tried with some of my own relatives. A year ago, an excellent satirical weekly devoted one of its programs to this issue and it is both hilarious and concerning. I found a copy on YouTube with subtitles, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLoR2Spftwg

Finally, in one instance last week the demonstrations turned violent. This was in Rotterdam, my birthplace. This has been widely condemned and it is becoming clear that these were mostly young hooligans looking for some excitement. About half the people arrested were minors.

I shared this exchange with a friend in Holland and he added an interesting elaboration to my first point above.

The previous industrial era had mass-production at its core with precise tasks for all employees in a strict hierarchical setting. In the current post-industrial time, more creativity is expected from employees, and they have more freedom in their work. The transition from one era to the other is called modernization. This is a long-term process, characterized by individualism, secularization, democratization, emancipation, and a general decline of trust in authorities. This is exactly what the ‘new economy’ needs. Education has changed along with this with more emphasis on independent critical thinking and less on rote learning.

This looks all well and good, but it also gives everyone the feeling that they are perfectly able to criticize any and everything. If this is accompanied by a decline in the traditional authority of teachers, politicians, medical doctors, and others, extreme ideas have an open field. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and the views of traditional authorities are no longer accepted.

During the industrial era society was polarized along class lines (Marx: capitalists and workers). However, in the post-industrial era respect is more important, or rather disrespect, the feeling among many that ‘the elite’ is looking down on them. This at the time when people are getting better educated and are developing their own opinions (modernization). These opinions are often dismissed by the elite as nonsense or ridiculed. Moreover, the elite seems to be more concerned with issues such as the European Union, climate change and the Third World, while the masses are worried about criminality and immigration. This feeling of disrespect (stronger in the US than in Holland) makes people react more aggressively and negatively and authorities are trusted less, or even distrusted. This is seen as a major cause of the populism that has emerged in the Western world.

There is one more element, anonymity. This is of course a major characteristic of urban life, but social media enable anyone today to communicate anonymously. It is well-known that anonymity contributes to extreme reactions. (Driving their car, people can act aggressively in a way they would feel embarrassed about if somebody they know would see what they are doing.)

In the view of my Dutch friend the sum of modernization + felt disrespect + anonymity largely explains the polarization of today. Are we sliding towards a civil war? That is hard to imagine in a civilized society. But the storming of the Capitol makes you wonder how civilized we are. Where will these three processes lead us? If you extrapolate the recent past, the future looks bleak, but who knows perhaps a civil sense and decency will make a comeback, politicians might realize their neglect of the masses and social media are de-anonymized.

Finally, another point was suggested by someone else: the media have evolved from a focus on information and education to one on entertainment, with scandals and corruption popular themes. And the one-sided emphasis on negative news must make people feel that everything is wrong with this world.

Comments are welcome.

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Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of ADB and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines