The state of the public debate: Polarization at play?

Posted on 29. September 2017

by Anna Kristense Naterstad Berg Harpviken

anna-harpvikenA few years ago, a headline reading: Erdoğan calls Merkel’s stance on EU membership ‘Nazism,’ would have made me raise an eyebrow. Today, such headlines seem entirely normal. This makes me wonder about the development of our news, and in particular about the state of the public debate. It seems as if the debates have gotten harsher, the statements bolder and the headlines bigger. At the same time, people appear increasingly convinced that they are right – less interested in dialogue and reflection. As a student of psychology, with a particular interest in interactions between people and society, this development has both fascinated and frightened me over the last couple of years.

In 2015, I wrote a blogpost in response to the debate that followed the attack on Charlie Hebdo: a debate that quickly became polarised between those seeing the freedom of speech as an absolute right and those claiming that there are limits to that freedom, and that it is a right which at times is best not exercised. I reflected on the importance of values and meanings, and advocated an effort to try to understand the reactions of people holding worldviews different from our own. My fear was that the rapid polarisation of the debate would lead us towards a new kind of public debate, that we would come to ignore voices other than the ones we agree with, and that the inclination to avoid insulting and offending others would become a thing of the past. Rereading my words today, more than two years later, made me feel a slight discomfort, as I realised that what I feared, what I hoped would not be, has since become reality in many ways.

Much has happened in the past two years. We have seen the growth of both ISIS and alt-right movements, Brexit, a European refugee crisis and several terrorist attacks. All of these events have given way to heated debates over the world, with a significant transformation of the political climate. When seen in relation to the debate that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack, I cannot help but think that recent developments have pushed the limit of what is acceptable conduct in public debates.

In the post from two years ago, I wrote that the meaning we give things varies from person to person, and that the core personal values that inform our opinions can seem threatened when we encounter the personal values and meanings of others. Such a situation can trigger a reaction: a desire to stand firm. This natural response, unfortunately, has the potential to foster enduring tension between people of different opinions. However, what the younger me concluded, is what gives rise to my concern: “Relating to others can strengthen your own faith, it can change it, and it might create a debate that narrows the gap. This can be scary. But for me, what’s even scarier is to see the conflict and violence that can transpire when you don’t.”

Fear is a vital part of being human, as it is the way we respond to being in danger. However, we do not always need to be in immediate danger to experience fear. Fear can also arise as a response to uncertainty or instability, oftentimes informed by events that do not affect us directly. TV coverage of a terrorist attack, for example, has been shown to trigger fear in people living thousands of miles from the area affected. In a rapidly globalising world – where news about insecurity, terrorism and wars travel at the speed of light – understanding the dynamics of fear, can give some insight into the increasing polarisation we see in the arena of debate.

When experiencing fear, it is normal to turn to what we feel is safe. This search for safety in the familiar easily makes us distance ourselves from what we do not know, understand or feel close to. Additionally, it can increase our trust in what we know well, and make us stand our ground even more strongly than before. As fear is an acute reaction triggered by what we experience as an emergency-situation, we also justify adherence to different rules of conduct than those that we apply in everyday life. This makes me wonder whether every frightening event has the ability to gradually push the limit of what we are willing both to state and accept, under the excuse of being a temporary response.

When one fear-inducing event is followed by another, it is easy to forget to evaluate how it was handled. This is one of the things that has fascinated me when looking back at my previous reflections: if we do not take the time to think about, and learn from, the debates that arise after events such as the Charlie Hebdo-attack, some of the jargon will inevitably seep into future debates. If so, the heated nature of some of the debates we have seen in the aftermath of dramatic events, might also have contributed to move the boundaries for what is tolerated in the public arena.

The rapid changes in what is tolerated – sometimes even encouraged – in public debates, might additionally be related to the recent disputes over so-called political correctness in the public arena. Many of us would argue that it is important to avoid both language and actions that can be experienced as discriminating, marginalising or insulting, and through this contribute to greater fairness and social equality. However, this notion is increasingly being challenged, often as a lashing out at political correctness. The new right-wing movement especially seems to have a desire for a society where anything, no matter how politically in-correct or offensive, can (and for some: should) be said. They present political correctness as a conscious elitist project, intended to intimidate and censor those that speak their mind.

When forming opinions, we easily favour information that confirms our own views and attitudes, and we ignore information that casts doubt on them. This is called confirmation bias, and is particularly relevant in a world of fast-paced change, where everyone has an opinion. As an example, for someone who believes Brexit will lead to the demise of the European project, every negatively-angled news item about the EU will confirm this belief. In this way, a circle is formed where fear leads to more fear. Seen together with the notion that the opposing views of others can trigger a fear-related reaction and desire to stand firm, this way of confirming one’s own views, is particularly interesting, as the two processes are mutually reinforcing, and provide a fast and effective route to polarisation.

Many of the arguments for adapting a style of discussion where politeness is thrown to the curb are, as previously mentioned, based on fear. This has contributed to a climate of debate where the ones that scream the loudest are often the ones listened to. Unfortunately, people who believe that there is a value in not insulting or offending others can easily be trapped in discussions with their counterparts, which in turn, can stunt argument. With the counterpart not adhering to the same code of conduct, this creates an interesting, and ultimately frightening, paradox.

Both fear and confirmation bias seems to be part of the problem. However, I also believe they can be part of the solution. There is reason to be fearful when we feel we are moving along a path that ultimately may end in value-laden confrontation. Just as I was when I first re-read my old blog-post. However, there is also reason to be hopeful. If we choose to see fear as an indication that we have moved too far in the wrong direction, it can also be used to identify a different way forward. Additionally, awareness about the flaws and pitfalls of confirmation bias might make it easier to recognise and avoid, making room for openness and reflection.

One of the last sentences of my old blog post was: “how do we react when our values are threatened? Do we stand firm on our beliefs, reluctant to view the matter from different angles, or acknowledge and look for different perspectives on the situation, to broaden our view?” I firmly believe that the questions I raised then are still important now. I believe in acknowledging our fears and our weaknesses, and I believe in using them to motivate our search for different perspectives and angles. Finally, I believe – or at the very least, I strongly hope –  that two years from now, I will not feel compelled to write a follow-up on this post.