Polarisation: A Short Introduction

By Annelies Pauwels and Maarten van Alstein

Polarisation comes in different forms. An important distinction can be made between ideological and affective polarisation. Ideological (or issue-based) polarisation refers to the sharpening of opinions, positions or believes on a specific issue within a group of like-minded people. The group moves from moderate towards more extreme views on the topic. This can increase
the ideological distance with groups that adopt opposing views. Classic examples are differences of opinions between left and right or between progressives and conservatives, but ideological polarisation can also take place with regards to issues such as vaccination against COVID-19 or climate change-related policies.

Affective polarisation, on the other hand, refers to a growing social-emotional distance between groups. Mutual distrust increases and the groups start to show a growing aversion or hostility towards one another. Social identities and in- and out- group dynamics play an important role in affective polarisation. For instance, members of a group that advocates for or against climate action may start sharing broader social identities and world views. The originally ideological polarisation with opposing groups may then grow into us-vs-them thinking, increasing distrust and sometimes even hostility.

A common misconception in public discourse sees polarisation equal to conflict. Because they might require different approaches, for policy-makers and practitioners it is useful to make a distinction between the two closely-related, but different phenomena. Polarisation is about increasing distance and alienation, whereas conflict refers to clashes and confrontation.

The ambivalent dynamics of polarisation
Polarisation and group identification are not necessarily negative. They are part of an open, pluralistic society and can enrich the democratic debate. The sharpening of opinions and the binding of groups based on shared social identities can be the means to mobilise political ideas and activism. Thus, polarisation can be important to bring about social change, or the emancipation of minorities. At the same time, there are serious risks associated with polarisation: an impoverishment of the public debate, the escalation of tensions, or too great a distance between social groups. Affective polarisation can bring about increasing aversion, hate and enmity. This can be toxic and harmful for societal relations and may lead to ruptures and crisis in democracy.

How to engage with polarisation?
How can practitioners and policy-makers navigate their way in the arena of polarisation? When to intervene – and how? An important first step involves identifying whether a particular situation of polarisation involves democratic or toxic and harmful polarisation. This judgment will greatly depend on how and in which context polarisation manifests itself, for instance the individuals or groups involved, the specific setting or place (e.g., social media, the classroom, a neighbourhood…), and the intensity of the polarisation. Decisions on when and how to intervene, we argue, can be usefully informed by a democratic and peace-oriented framework that leaves as much space as possible for the freedom of expression, a plurality of different voices and disagreement, even if this entails conflicts and tensions.

However, when (affective) polarisation becomes toxic and hostile, it will be necessary to monitor certain boundaries.
On the one hand, these boundaries are determined by the legal framework. Violence (such as hate crimes or terrorism),
the incitement to hatred and various forms of discrimination are proscribed in most Member States. On the other hand, polarisation is also delimited by ‘border areas’ constituted by the values and norms of democracy and non-violence. When verbal violence and increasing intergroup hostility take the upper hand and (ideological) polarisation becomes toxic and harmful, interventions to de-escalate the tensions will be necessary. And when polarisation results in forms of extremism that denounce democracy and tend towards violence, policy-makers and practitioners will also need to take (preventive) action.

The question of how to practically intervene in cases of any harmful polarisation is beyond the scope of this article. For the purpose of this text, it suffices to refer to the many models and techniques that were developed in recent years, inspired by approaches such as polarisation management, mediation and conflict transformation. Determining which technique is useful in a given situation will strongly depend on the particularities of the case, the context and the groups involved.

Editor’s note: A more extended version of this article will appear shortly on the website of the Flemish Peace Institute (https://vlaamsvredesinstituut.eu/en/).

Maarten Van Alstein is a senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute. His research focuses on conflict transformation and peace education. You can follow him on Twitter: @MvanAlstein

Annelies Pauwels is a researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute, where she focuses on the prevention of radicalisation and violent extremism. You can follow her on Twitter: @anneliespwls