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Interview: A divided society? Do something about inequality!

Are the Dutch more often completely at odds with each other these days? Or is the fear of a divided society mainly based on feeling? Social scientists Andreas Flache and Tom Postmes warn that we ‘have to stay alert’.

By Maaike Borst, Dagblad van het Noorden

Tom Postmes
Tom Postmes

Whenever Tom Postmes, Professor of Social Psychology, asked a full lecture hall at the beginning of this century who had ever joined a public protest, about four students would raise their hands. ‘And these were always German students.’

When he asks the same question now, at least half of the students turn out to have joined a protest at one point. ‘That is a huge difference. We are in the middle of a protest wave, there is a lot of social dissatisfaction. So you start asking yourself: what is going on? Why this unusual behaviour?’

More radical

Research into citizens’ perspectives by the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Netherlands Institute for Social Research) shows that a third of the population feels that the Netherlands has become more polarized in the last few years, according to Andreas Flache, Professor of Sociology.

‘The idea is that people are increasingly seeking extremes, are becoming more radical, and that society is falling apart. The strange thing is that the same research shows that our opinions on social matters have not become more extreme at all.’

The term polarization has been used a lot these past few years. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which a sharp divide arose between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, between groups who would call each other schapen (sheep) and wappies (covidiots). There is a fear that the gap between the different perceptions of reality will become unbridgeable.

Andreas Flache
Andreas Flache

A sort of loathing

Postmes: ‘There is a tendency, which is even stronger in the United States, that is no longer about opinions but about groups of people who are really starting to hate each other. When groups with different opinions start talking to each other, you usually see that they move closer towards each other. But in cases of what we call “affective polarization”, you see a sort of loathing that ignores arguments. That could be the start of hostilities. It is fighting talk.’

Flache also mentions the gap between Republicans and Democrats in the US as an example. How Republicans can no longer see Democrats as intelligent or reliable, and vice versa. ‘We are beginning to see some of that in the Netherlands as well. For example, among followers of Forum voor Democratie [Forum for Democracy political party] and GroenLinks [the Green Left political party]. They share no feelings whatsoever.’

The advantage of the Netherlands is that the political establishment is more fragmented than the two-party system in the US, which means that it does not split the whole of society. There is a large group in the middle.

But there is still something to worry about. The biggest problem that reinforces polarization is the increasing inequality in the Netherlands, according to the academics. ‘We really should worry about that’, says Postmes, ‘The biggest gap seems to be in education, between those with a practical education and those with a theoretical education. There is segregation in schools, in neighbourhoods, and in politics.’

Us vs them thinking

Flache: ‘There are huge differences in income, wealth, education, neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, the government influence has withdrawn in the last few decades, and we have social media. This enhances us vs them thinking. They, the highly-educated elite, are visible in the media, and we are the common people who are being ignored.’

Flache and his research group analyse social networks and processes of social influencing within these networks. In these analyses, Flache sees that completely normal human behaviour can already increase polarization under certain circumstances.

‘We prefer to socialize with people who look like each other, we prefer to hear things that confirm our opinions, we believe in things that fit into our world. That is simply human. But when groups in society live in their own bubbles and there is no dissenting opinion, this can strengthen their own opinions and cause them to radicalize.’

Polarization is not necessarily about two opposing parties, as is often thought. Postmes: ‘Originally, polarization referred to the radicalization of one group.’ He shows a picture of former CDA [Christian Democratic Appeal political party] politician Maxime Verhagen, wearing an orange vest while speaking during a protest on the Malieveld in The Hague on behalf of Bouwend Nederland, a trade organization for the building sector. ‘Even people like this think that things are going wrong in the Netherlands.’


Fear of decline

Protest has its place in society. We are living in a time when abundance has come to an end and choices have to be made. ‘Of course, this means that there are going to be advocates. We need them.’ What does strike Postmes, though, is the pessimism among protesters. ‘During the protests of the 1960s there was a strong feeling of progress: we can make things better. Now there seems to be mainly a fear of decline.’

Polarization is not as strong in the Netherlands as it is in the United States: our society is not split into two opposing parties, our social security is still good, and advocates are essential in times of change. Even so, Andreas Flache sometimes worries.

‘You can keep thinking that extreme opinions are part of life, that they lead to discussions. But there is always the risk of us vs them thinking. We know from research and from history that things can topple very quickly. We have to stay alert.’

Flache’s father was from the German part of the Sudetes. His father told him how the Czechs and the Germans came face to face and how, after World War II, the Germans were driven from the Sudetenland, an area within the Czech borders where mostly German was spoken. This family history is one of the reasons why he researches polarization and social processes.

And even though science itself is regularly under fire in polarized debates, Flache still believes that in the end, objective information (in addition to fighting inequality) can help to rebut radicalized opinions. ‘That is all we have as academics.’

  • Tom Postmes is full Professor, Social Psychology and studies human behavior in virtual groups and communities, in crowds and also in organizations and "normal" teams.
  • Andreas Flache is professor of sociology. Expertise in social integration, Cooperation, Social networks, Agent-based modelling, Social complexity.

Last modified:23 November 2022 2.08 p.m.
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