Science
Sjoerd Beugelsdijk Photo by Reyer Boxem

Polarisation

No tongue in cheek anymore

Sjoerd Beugelsdijk Photo by Reyer Boxem
Society became polarised long before the start of the pandemic, says business expert Sjoerd Beugelsdijk. Being nicer to each other won’t help. ‘That’s underestimating the structural underlying issues.’
Text by Jürgen Tiekstra
20 December om 15:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 21 December 2021
om 18:16 uur.
December 20 at 15:46 PM.
Last modified on December 21, 2021
at 18:16 PM.

‘The various political sides fighting is an age-old occurrence’, says Sjoerd Beugelsdijk. ‘In the seventies, politicians like Joop den Uyl and Dries van Agt were constantly at odds.’

‘But what’s new’, says the professor of international business, who recently wrote a book on polarisation in the Netherlands, ‘is that we’ve started to create this stereotype of the enemy as a way of “delegitimising” our opponents.’ And that, Beugelsdijk says, is dangerous.

No opinion

‘Political discussions between different sides were going on, but it was always kind of tongue in cheek. That’s gone now. These days, it’s more common to not only see your opponent as a person with a different opinion, but someone with an opinion that’s not allowed.’ 

Social media’s role is disastrous; it’s emancipated certain groups but also pitted them against each other

‘We run the risk of forgetting some basic democratic principles. People tend to think that once the majority has made a decision, the remaining minority no longer gets to have an opinion. But that’s not how democracy works. Democracy involves the majority taking the minority into account. 

Social media’s role in this process is disastrous, because while it has emancipated certain groups, it’s also pitted them against each other.’

When did polarisation in the Netherlands change?

‘Whenever I talk to historians, I ask them what happened in 2001. They almost always answer with “9/11”. Which is true, but several other things happened in that year: In December of 2001, China joined the World Trade Organisation, which turned the world’s economy on its head. 

In Genoa, there were protests against the G8 where people were killed. It was a wide variety of protesters, including radicals, but also people who were simply worried about how tenable the globalised economy was.’ 

Run wild

‘There were anti-capitalists and environmental organisations, as well as unions who were worried about the division of labour if globalisation persisted. Many of their fears have come true.

Finally, same-sex marriage was legalised in the Netherlands in 2001. It was a highlight in the fight for emancipation, as well as a high point for individualism, the right to be yourself.

That’s beautiful. Nevertheless, many people feel that individualism has run wild since then. This focus on “I decide everything myself” has demonstrably run wilder here than in neighbouring countries. Add social media to that, and you have a perfect storm. 

Polarisation is nothing new, but our society has changed.’

Is the polarisation concerning the Covid restrictions completely removed from this? Or does it naturally follow earlier developments?

‘I think it’s both. The pandemic is its own event, because never before have we had such a clear discussion on whether or not to get vaccinated, on the fact that society is suffering from this group that’s refusing to get the shot. That’s that relationship between the majority and minority groups.’

People who were already having a tough time are affected the most

‘That’s already a pretty tense discussion, which is what makes it so difficult. The minority that we would normally protect is now having a negative impact on the majority.

What’s also happening, though, is that people who were already having a tough time of it are affected the most by the pandemic. That increases the divide between the lower and higher social classes.’ 

Children

‘If children have to stay home because of the pandemic, parents have to take care of them. The parents who are best able to compensate for the school these children are missing are highly educated parents. 

Lower education parents may not own a tablet, may not speak Dutch to a high level, or they might be migrants. They have a lot of issues connecting to their environment. The negative impact of that will eventually show itself.’

‘The government has also changed the way it works over the past few decades. That’s something we all did together. The government is focused on being efficient. It’s run like a company, and citizens are the customers. That idea started in the nineties, and it’s undermined public domain. 

Breaking point

That comes back to haunt us during a crisis like this pandemic, when we’re completely dependent on public domain: healthcare, education, police. Today, our options are limited, because we stretched everything to its breaking point. So we’re facing the consequences of the decisions we made in the nineties.

The same goes for the concept of individualism which has grown so big in the Netherlands. All of a sudden, the government is back, saying they’re going to decide what people have to do from now on. That’s really complicated in the Netherlands.’

Dutch people are quite worried about polarisation. Do you share their worries, or can you put them in perspective as an academic? 

‘I’m not sure. It’s not like it’s one half of Dutch people against the other half. There are various factions. What I’d love to see is that this process of polarisation scares us all so much that we take a step back into our own corners and start looking for solutions to the underlying issues.’ 

The issues run much deeper than most people think

‘I’m pessimistic in the sense that this polarisation isn’t a coincidence. The issues run much deeper than most people think. 

What I do like is the fact that everybody can see what’s going on; the political parties, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, the VNO-NCW employers’ federation, the unions; everyone knows we need to tone it down. 

It’s up to politicians now, but it’s going to be difficult getting a majority vote on things when there’s eighteen parties.’

Don’t studies by the Institute for Social Research show that polarisation in the Netherlands is a smaller issue than it appears?

‘We still have a lot in common. But people feel like they have to choose a side when it comes to social discussions. Take the discussion on Zwarte Piet: very few people have extreme ideas about it, but the discussion has been hijacked by extremists. It’s made people feel like they have to either be for or against. I call those ‘all or nothing discussion’.’

The idea that talking about issues differently can solve polarisation is naive

‘The same goes for vaccination: you’re either for or against it. You can’t get half a vaccination. If you’re asking whether polarisation is an emotional issue: The difference in people’s incomes isn’t an emotional issue. That’s a fact. 

It’s also a fact that people with an average income can’t afford to buy a house anymore. That’s not an emotion. Things like that lead to polarisation on an educational level, on a financial level. 

So yes, part of the issue is the way social discussions are being held. But saying that’s the only cause of polarisation is underestimating the structural underlying issues. You run the risk of thinking that polarisation can be solved by talking about those issues differently. But that’s naive.’

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