Harmful polarisation? Kazerne Dossin breaks the negative spiral

Chris Simoens
09 October 2019
Kazerne Dossin (Mechelen) organises training sessions on polarisation and is currently busy creating a knowledge platform that should help people understand the mechanism behind this phenomenon. An initiative that is important in today’s society.

Is polarisation more prevalent nowadays than it used to be? Hard to say. After all, polarisation is a human phenomenon. We live in a complex world consisting of many groups of people with different characteristics. To keep things clear, we tend to give these groups a name or a label. In other words, we easily resort to thinking in terms of us and them.

Men and women, Flemings and Walloons, left and right, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, North and South, the people and the elite, ... You name it. While there is nothing wrong with these oppositions as such, the risk exists that the labels persist. Gradually, an image of the other that is no longer based on facts becomes entrenched; it becomes merely a thought construct. For example, 'migrants are violent and want to take our jobs'.


Ten stages of genocide

'Simple things like dividing people into groups and putting a symbol on them can evolve into profound polarisation and even genocide', says Adriaan Baccaert, who works on polarisation at Kazerne Dossin (Mechelen). 'These are the findings of Gregory Stanton, who researched all the genocides in modern history.'

Stanton distinguishes ten stages that can lead to genocide, starting with classification and symbolisation. Baccaert: 'Calling someone a man or a woman and using an icon for men or women on toilet doors is innocent, but forcing people to wear the Jewish star goes much further than that. The sixth step, after discrimination, dehumanisation and organisation, is polarisation. Up until then, groups are more or less able to live side by side, but from stage six onwards this is no longer possible. This is where the red flags really start to pop. In the worst case scenario, polarisation is followed by the stages of preparation, persecution and extermination.'

As soon as stage six, polarisation, has been reached, there is no longer room for moderate thinking. Baccaert: 'During the Spanish civil war, you were either a Franco supporter or a communist. In the case of far-reaching polarisation, the middle disappears: people are either silenced or forced to take sides. During the clashes between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, for instance, moderate voices were met with suspicion and murdered.'

The theme of polarisation clearly is a priority for Kazerne Dossin, which wants to be more than a museum and memorial of the Holocaust in Belgium and also works on human rights nowadays (see box). 'The Holocaust remains our core business,' says Baccaert. 'But we also want to shed light on the mechanisms that led to the Holocaust. We ask ourselves the question: how do the same mechanisms lead to similar situations today?'

Polarisation appears to be a universal mechanism, a pattern or cascade in which people get stuck without realising it. Once people have fallen into the trap of polarisation, it is very difficult to get out of it.

Polarisation appears to be a universal mechanism, a pattern or cascade in which people get stuck without realising it. Once people have fallen into the trap of polarisation, it is very difficult to get out of it. 'That is why it is so important that people understand how the mechanism works,' says Baccaert. 'People are blind when it comes to their own role in polarisation, because they are convinced they have the truth on their side. Good examples are the divisions between left and right, and between remainers and leavers in the Brexit debate.'

A distinction has to be made, however, between different forms of polarisation. For instance, during debates on the abolition of slavery or on voting rights for women, it was good to have different viewpoints being juxtaposed. ‘Polarisation only becomes harmful when people start playing the man instead of the ball,' explains Baccaert.


Oil slick

First and foremost, Kazerne Dossin wants to offer training courses, calling on the insights of Bart Brandsma, a Dutch researcher who made a detailed analysis of the dynamics of polarisation as a phenomenon which can easily be applied in practice (see box). He is currently working hard to make his insights better known, both inside and outside the Netherlands, including Flanders and Wallonia.


Bart Brandsma’s vision on polarisation


When it comes to the mechanism of polarisation, Bart Brandsma distinguishes a number of roles, such as the pusher, the joiner and the silent. He also points out that a conflict, which is about a concrete fact ('both Anne and Jack want to sit on the swing'), is clearly different from polarisation, which is purely a thought or assumption about the other. But a conflict can feed polarisation while polarisation can reinforce a conflict. Polarisation does not exclusively refer to interactions between different groups of people, it can also occur on a smaller scale, for example within a classroom or a couple.


Schema met 4 rollen bij polarisatie


A remarkable finding of Brandsma is that bridge builders actually reinforce polarisation. This happens, for example, when people with the best intentions bring the two opposing poles, the pushers, together for a debate in order to build bridges. The problem is that, in an advanced stage of polarisation, the pushers no longer show interest in the other party. They just want to set off on a monologue, and everything the other pusher says only confirms their own deep-rooted, non-factual image of the other pole.


According to Brandsma, anyone who wants to mitigate the harmful effects of polarisation must invest in the middle, where the 'silent majority' is found, preferably at the earliest possible stage. It is better to leave the poles untouched.


After an extreme conflict, it is crucial that a 'peace agreement' is reached that goes beyond a few arrangements. The underlying polarisation has to be addressed, a time-consuming process that is often ignored. According to Brandsma, good examples of so-called 'transformations' after a serious conflict are South Africa (after Apartheid), Nepal (conflict between Maoists and the state) and Finland (conflict between the Sami and the Finnish state).


Brandsma wrote down his vision in his book 'Polarisation: Understanding the dynamics of us versus them'. Read the book summary here. The book itself is available through the organization of Brandsma Inside polarisation. You also find animations and more info on his site.


Kazerne Dossin’s polarisation training focuses mainly on people who have an impact on society. 'That way, we hope the insights will spread like an oil slick,' explains Baccaert. The approach turns out to be effective. 'We have noticed that there is an enormous demand for such trainings: teachers, cultural associations, organisations involved in civic integration, the police, trade unions, health services, etc. Participants also ask us for additional training courses in which we look further into the problems because, although the theory is quite simple, the application in practice proves to be complex.

Kazerne Dossin also brought a number of organisations working on polarisation in Flanders together in one single network. These include the Flemish municipalities’ umbrella organisation, the Flemish Peace Institute, universities, educational networks, islamic experts and Circles, the non-profit organisation that was set up after the terror attacks at the Maalbeek metro station.

We have noticed that there is an enormous demand for trainings on polarisation: teachers, cultural associations, organisations involved in civic integration, the police, trade unions, health services, etc.

A well-attended lecture on polarisation
© Kazerne Dossin

In addition, Dossin is building the website wij-zij.be, which will be launched on 22 October 2019. It is intended as a knowledge platform that brings together everything that has to do with polarisation: research, practical cases, tools and recommendations (e.g. how to deal with difficult conversations), the training offer, etc. 'For the time being, we do not have any funds to provide the website in French, although this may happen in the future', says Baccaert. 'However, we are already providing training on ethical dilemmas in both languages to the federal police, and we are currently working on a module on polarisation. The police is especially well-suited to play a federating role'.



The polarisation programme also has an international component, as Kazerne Dossin has established contacts in Bosnia. 'After the civil war in Bosnia, a peace agreement was reached, but it did not touch on the deep-rooted assumptions that different ethnic groups have about each other,' says Marjan Verplancke, head of public relations at Kazerne Dossin. 'These assumptions are still being passed on from generation to generation, keeping society highly polarised.'

Nevertheless, many initiatives are being taken to address this problem and bring the different communities together, even without government support. Verplancke: 'For example, there is a radio station in Mostar that does very powerful work to promote peace or the Centre for Youth KVART in Prijedor. We want to see what we can learn from them and what they can learn from us.'

Kazerne Dossin is thus building a trans-European network. The 'oil slick' can therefore certainly cross the Flemish and Belgian borders. People need to understand the mechanism of polarisation before they are caught up in it because, all in all, polarisation distracts from the real questions and concerns of the middle.


Read also:

Polarisation unraveled: invest in the middle (a summary of Brandsma's book)

‘Polarisation; understanding the dynamics of us versus them’ (Bart Brandsma) (available through the organization of Brandsma Inside polarisation)

What is Kazerne Dossin and what does it do?


Zicht op Kazerne Dossin


The military barracks Dossin have existed since the Austrian period. During World War II, they served as a transit camp to Auschwitz where approximately 25,000 Jews, Roma and Sinti were deported. Only 5 percent of them survived.


After the war, people preferred to forget that piece of history. The building was saved from demolition by turning it into apartments. Fortunately, an action group was able to buy up part of the building and house a museum in it. Later on, the Flemish government was prepared to finance a new museum in a new building.


Today, Kazerne Dossin not only wants to remember the Holocaust in Belgium, but also wants to work on human rights, drawing parallels to the present.

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About the same theme - Article 3 /19 Polarisation unraveled: invest in the middle