Polarisation unraveled: invest in the middle

Chris Simoens
08 October 2019
Our world seems subject to an increasing polarisation: the people versus the elite, Muslims versus non-Muslims, … Is it possible to ‘depolarise’ polarisation? And how does polarisation relate to its ‘little brother’, conflict? Dutch author Bart Brandsma made polarisation his life’s work and wrote a book about it. Glo.be presents an overview of his insights. More information via Inside polarisation.

THREE PRINCIPLES

Polarisation or the ‘us-versus-them’ way of thinking exists all over the world. The number of variations is infinite and yet the dynamics of polarisation are the same anywhere, anytime. Polarisation is invariably based on three basic laws:

 

1. Thought construct

You cannot perceive polarisation in your living environment as it is always abstract. Polarisation is about words, opinions and ideas, unlike conflicts (see below). Two identities are opposed and loaded with meaning. Men, for example, are assumed to be active and tech-savvy, whereas women are thought of as passive and, above all, looking to have a good conversation.

In fact, we cannot do without polarisation: we have to make distinctions in our complex world. Moreover, polarisation is linked to the provision of an identity and we all appear to have a need for that.

The fact that polarisation is a thought construct also has a positive effect: it is not unchangeable. Even centuries-old oppositions - certainties about identities - can crumble. Just think of the vision on the male-female opposition in the 20th century. In other words, we are not powerless.

 

2. Fuel

Polarisation needs 'fuel', in the way you regularly have to put new logs on a fire. In the case of polarisation, the fuel are the statements about someone else’s identity, both well-intentioned and in bad faith, for example: refugees are fortune hunters, bankers are freeloaders, Obama is right, Trump is wrong…

 

3. Gut-feeling dynamics

As polarisation increases, more and more ideas about the other arise, while reasonableness decreases. As the pathos rises, facts have less impact. Even if you exchange knowledge about the other person’s (true) identity and try to show understanding for the counterpole’s viewpoints, this information will be incompatible with the image that has already been formed. Thinking in terms of friends and enemies is simply persistent and resistant to hard evidence. And if the facts are difficult to disprove, we can always resort to a conspiracy theory.

Schematic with the 4 roles
© Bart Brandsma

FIVE ROLES

Who plays which part in the phenomenon of polarisation?

 

1. The pusher

The pusher supplies fuel for the ‘us-versus-them’ way of thinking. He makes (simplified) statements about 'the other', the counterpole: Muslims are terrorists, refugees are testosterone bombs...

The pusher at the other counterpole does exactly the same. According to pushers, evil is always on the other side.

Pushers play a visible leading role. They have their own (moral) conviction that they are right, while the others are 100% wrong. The identities that are placed opposite each other have nothing in common: a pusher forces you to pick sides. He will not allow himself to listen to the other party, because then he loses his role. Moderation and nuance imply loss of face. This makes his position unpredictable, and therefore powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

 

2. The joiner

The joiner chooses one of the two poles. While he is not as extreme as the pusher, he partly endorses the pusher’s vision, at least at the start. In other words, he joins a camp of supporters, which gives him colour and status. When polarisation increases, it becomes difficult for the joiner to switch to the other camp, because that would mean betrayal.

There are many different types of joiners. For example, the 'prospective pusher' stays close to one of the poles. He is busy substantiating his own case with facts and reasons, selecting only the information that supports his own truth.

The prospective pusher mainly wants to deliver a monologue, he shows no interest in the others’ point of view. The somewhat more moderate joiner, by contrast, is prepared to enter into a discussion. Although his own truth comes first, a conversation can take place, albeit past one another. The joiner who is prepared to enter into a debate is situated a little more towards the middle. In a good debate, people listen and might slightly adjust their position, but it is only in the middle that dialogue can take place: one's own points of view are not central, it is possible to exchange views on a common question or dilemma.

 

3. The silent

The dialogue brings us to the silent: the character that does not take sides. This can be out of indifference, but also out of great commitment. Some people are 'silent' because of their function: mayors, police officers, civil servants, judges...

The silents are very different from each other, but what they share is their invisibility. After all, nuance does not have a voice in polarisation. The joiner is better off in this respect: by choosing a colour, he acquires an identity and becomes more visible.

The pushers’ priority is to make an impact on that middle section. For them, it is important that the middle makes a choice, whereby it does not even matter whether it is a choice for or against a certain pole.

 

4. The bridge builder

The bridge builder wants to remedy polarisation. He sees shortcomings in the world view of both poles and wants to bring nuance to the vision of both pushers and joiners by means of dialogue or counter-stories. The problem is that talking about the other fuels polarisation. The characters located near the poles - in other words, the extremes - do not listen to each other. In other words, the bridge builder, despite being well-intentioned, reinforces polarisation!

The media can play this role of bridge builder - and therefore of accelerator – by showing both sides and placing them opposite one other.

 

5. The scapegoat

Polarisation can take on massive proportions: the us-them thinking reaches a climax. In order to maintain his visibility, the pusher tends to adopt ever more extreme positions. This can result in a civil war, such as between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

A fifth role occurs at this stage: the scapegoat, who is situated right in the middle between the poles. The middle turns into a danger zone where people are forced to pick sides and an intermediate position becomes precarious. The bridge builder, who is tolerated as long as he serves the interests of both camps, becomes the ideal scapegoat. Under extreme polarisation pressure, someone who nuances is considered to be a traitor. Mayors, police officers, journalists or teachers, all of them are at risk of becoming scapegoats.

 

THE SEVEN PHASES OF A CONFLICT

Opinions and visions differ. People can set their sights on a scarce resource that is simultaneously coveted by others. In short, conflict is only human. Peace does not mean 'conflict-free', but 'knowing how to deal with conflicts in a harmonious way'.

In contrast to polarisation, conflicts are concrete: a difference of opinion, an argument, a stabbing, a war...

In a conflict, we can distinguish seven phases:

1. Preparation phase

2. Intensification phase

Gradually the annoyance builds up. Take, for example, a conflict about the division of household tasks between partners: for the umpteenth time, one partner did not rinse the sink.

3. Escalation phase

An incident - the straw that breaks the camel’s back - makes the conflict escalate. Parties and bystanders become aware of the conflict. In the household conflict, yet another sloppiness gives rise to an anger outburst. On a larger scale, this could be a war.

4. Maintenance phase

In the heat of the conflict, we invest in the contrasts and maintain the conflict. The anger has to disappear first. The parties are not willing to come closer or engage in dialogue.

This phase can take a long time, just think of Syria. Sooner or later, however, energy will start to dissipate: the conflicting parties will become tired and that will mark a turning point. There is a growing awareness that maintaining the conflict is likely to cost more than the energy it takes to resolve it.

5. Rapprochement phase

The point where energy starts to dissipate, is the onset of a rapprochement phase. Only then does it make sense to negotiate. The conflict is not over and can erupt at any time, but at least the parties are prepared to gather around the table.

6. Recognition phase

Gradually the parties listen to each other again, making it possible to tackle the underlying problem. In the household conflict, for instance, the root of the problem is that the household tasks are unevenly distributed.

7. Reconciliation phase

The conflicting parties interact in a friendly way again. The household tasks are better distributed, the house remains clean. Reconciliation leads to transformation. Understanding for the other party grows, reflection on the personal part in the conflict sheds new light on the matter. This phase is often overlooked, although it is essential for stable peace.

 

For the outside world, which tries to intervene in a conflict, there are four stages.

1. Prevention stage (preparation and intensification: intervention is possible)

2. Intervention stage (= escalation and maintenance: no intervention possible)

3. Mediation stage

4. Reconciliation stage

Conflict clearly differs from polarisation, but they both include similar phases and there is an interaction between them: a conflict can be the tip of the iceberg of underlying polarisation. In addition, conflicts feed polarisation and polarisation strengthens conflicts. For example, the maintenance phase of a conflict can provide fuel for polarisation: black-and-white thinking is growing, fed by oneliners and one-sided statements.

Even if a conflict goes through its mediation and reconciliation stage, polarisation often remains present under the surface. The people directly involved in a conflict may have concluded an agreement, but  the black-and-white way of thinking persists in society. This black-and-white thinking only dissolves when the reconciliation in a conflict has led to a real transformation, an aspect that is often omitted in peace negotiations. Take, for example, the Dayton Peace Agreement in Serbia and Bosnia or the situation after World War I, eventually leading to World War II.

As stated before, conflicts are only human. Yet people often tend to strongly condemn those responsible for a conflict, which in turn only provides fuel for more conflict and polarisation. The question of guilt directly hinders the pursuit of peace and reconciliation.

 

POLARISATION DEPOLARISED: FOUR GAME CHANGERS

Timing is crucial when tackling polarisation and conflict, because during the intervention phase (escalation and maintenance phase) a dialogue is of no use at all. At that stage, the parties involved are not willing or able to listen to each other. A dialogue would only reinforce polarisation.

Only in the three other stages does it make sense to bring parties and poles together for a dialogue:

- Prevention stage: exchanging knowledge and building up understanding for the other party

- Mediation stage: training in conflict management skills

- Reconciliation stage: reflection on one's own attitude and belief in the conflict.

In a conflict, it is generally not the difference that makes us clash, but the fact that we all want the same thing. Muslims and non-Muslims ultimately want a solid education, housing, job, control and also recognition, status and appreciation. Even when a conflict apparently revolves around identity, it often turns out that the underlying reason revolves around a fight for the same scarce resource. In an attempt to bring conflicting parties or poles together, the other party’s identity should not be central. It is essential to examine one's own attitude and be prepared to reassess it.

How can we deal with polarisation? In addition to the sensible use of the means 'dialogue', four game changers are crucial.

 

1. Changing the target group

Release the poles and invest in the middle. After all, paying attention to the poles leads to growing polarisation: you give them fuel. Progress can only be made in the middle, the ultimate target group for the pusher, through key figures: people who are in the middle, have influence and have no interest in polarisation. Such key figures (mosque chairmen, trade unionists...) can, for example, in a neighbourhood conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims help to unravel the fact that at the end of the day, both groups pursue the same goal: safety in the neighbourhood and a good future for their children. By focusing on the middle, that middle is strengthened.

 

2. Changing the subject

Is it really about the identity of the two groups or poles? In the neighbourhood conflict mentioned above, the underlying subject was: we all want safety and a good future for our children. This is an issue that concerns everyone, and not a point of view that provokes discussion. By stressing this common interest, you take fuel from the pushers who focus on identity.

 

3. Changing position

The bridge builder places himself above the parties, a position that does not engender trust: neither of the two poles consider him as 'one of them'. Much better is the mediator who is literally in the middle (with the silent), at the same level as the relevant target groups. He does not bridge the ravine between two extremes, but builds a connection from the middle. This requires knowing the middle, listening to it, being part of it... Mayors and police officers should position themselves in the middle.

 

4. Changing the tone

Whoever is in the middle cannot raise an admonishing or accusing finger. He asks questions in order to find out what the underlying issue is. The tone must be one of genuine interest, of recognition of the other party, a tone that is mild, without judgment. The mediator does not seek confirmation for his own truth, but sincerely wants to listen to the other party. Giving recognition to another person is not necessarily the same as agreeing with him. This art of mediative speech and mediative behaviour is a critical success factor for depolarisation. It should be a basic skill for all managers.

As stated above, the mediator cannot do anything in a polarised climate, i.e. in the maintenance phase when the battle has broken out. Credit must be earned in the prevention phase.

 

If you want to gain more insight into Bart Brandsma's vision, you can read his book 'Polarisation – Understanding the dynamics of us versus them'. Available through the organization of Brandsma Inside polarisation. You will also find animations and more info.

 

 

 

 

 

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