The poison of polarization

The poison of polarization

As far as I can remember, Greece has been divided. This division is usually of low intensity (green and blue cafeterias) but often gets out of hand (Civil War, National Division). As expected, this predisposition would be enhanced during such a severe economic and institutional crisis. From 2010 until now the Greek society’s division is widening and deepening. Social media have contributed to this significantly. Their role is clearly negative, as they exacerbate the already existing problem, reflecting and multiplying hatred.

The main people responsible for this division in Greek society are clearly the two government partners. The monster that is now moving uncontrollably was born in their own warm embrace and nurtured during the 2010-15 season with their words and actions. But even today there does not seem to be any real repentance. As is the case in these situations, nobody can monopolize toxicity. The two government partners may retain a dominant position, but there are also ambitious competitors.

I have stood against this government from the start. I think it is the worst democratically elected government post-war. It has caused an unbearable political, economic, social and even moral cost. Its position in history, whoever writes it, is predetermined. It has caused a lot of damage to the country in its most vulnerable period, treating everything in a timely manner without any hesitation.

But both sides are responsible for the way political dialogue causes my indignation. And I am much angrier when I see occurrences of wild fanaticism and irrational manichaeism from the side that considers itself as modernizing, reforming, pro-European, liberal. I am outraged even more when intolerance reaches a point of personal attacks, targeting, insults against those who do not join. Those who attempt to sound the alert, those who are not prepared to rationalize, justify and tolerate anything, in order to achieve the great purpose. Because they understand the change that this requires.

What is happening is very dangerous. It destroys social consistency, blocks consensus, dissolves the social fabric. Polarization demoralizes and leads to pavlovic reactions. It alienates us from reason, distances us from people with whom we have much more common than we imagine. It prevents us from even seeing what is in front of our eyes.

To give you an idea of how serious the problem of automated bias is, I will describe an experiment made in 2011 by US colleagues. They showed a video of a protest to two large groups of people. But while the two teams saw exactly the same video, what each group “saw” was very different. The experiment was more complicated, but I will simplify it here so it’s understood. The video did not have sound and the image had been edited to hide the reason for the protest. In the first group (let’s say group A), the research team gave the following information: The protestors are members of a left-wing organization. In the second group (let’s say group B) it gave quite the opposite information: The protestors are members of a right-wing organization.

Both teams had people with left-wing and right-wing ideals. As you can imagine, they dealt with the scenes they saw in a very different way. But something more paradoxical happened. The right-wing people of the first group (A), thinking that they saw leftists protesting, characterized them as violent and aggressive towards the police and the pedestrians. On the contrary, the left-wingers believed that the protesters behaved impeccably, but they were provoked by the police, that they were peaceful and restrained, that they did not upset any of the pedestrians.

On the other hand, the leftists of the second group (B), thinking that they were seeing right-wing protestors, characterized them as violent and aggressive. The right-wing people, on the contrary, felt that the demonstrators behaved impeccably, but were provoked by the police. Thus, Group A’s right wing and Group B’s left-wing “saw” something very different from what the group A’s left-wing and group B’s right-wing “saw” because they did not see with their eyes but with their prejudices.

The sample was representative. Men and women, white and African-Americans, with more and less education, wealthy and poor, young and old. In any case, prejudices predetermined perception. Polarization reproduces itself after it blinds you.

* Mr. Aristides Chatzis Professor of Philosophy of Law & Theory of Institutions at University of Athens and member of the Academic Board of the Center for Liberal Studies (KEFiM).

Note: The article was published on Sunday 09/09 in the newspaper “Kathimerini”.