Fixing the ship of state’s helm

Polarization is affecting our society tremendously. Over the last decades, many (western) countries have become increasingly individualistic. Many well-educated people no longer identify with their country, flag or nationality, but mostly identify with their recently acquired education or job, salary or social class. It seems as if every country is fighting its domestic wars – the metropolis versus the rural area, the wealthy coasts versus the fly-over states, the educated intellectuals versus the labourer or the conservatives versus the liberals. It causes anxiety to the public and makes people feel as if things are solely moving backwards. Some people struggle to find a job, some people struggle with their mental health, and some people struggle with their identity. Fact is, whatever subject comes up in national discussions, it almost always seems to end up in a battle between the ‘right’ or ‘left’, between liberals or conservatives, between rich and poor people, or between the city and the rural towns.

A prominent example of this phenomenon is the Dutch tradition of ‘black peet’ – a yearly event in December when Sint Nicholas uses his black servants called ‘peet’ to hand out presents to children. Of course, this is perceived as racist by many, yet, a lot of predominantly white conservative Dutch people find it to be part of their culture and therefore want to keep their traditions. Every year this discussion heats up, and every year mostly the same people are involved. There is an infinite number of similar examples occurring all over the planet, though, to me this particular example remains specifically interesting; why do these pro-black peet activists attach so much value to ‘tradition’? This is a topic sociologist, anthropologists and academics from many other disciplines have conducted studies on, but to me, it is a topic I believe everyone should think about.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, the phenomenon of ‘national identity’ is fading away for some. The increasing number of people that get to study at a university, identify with their fellow students and move to an expensive city far away from their not well-educated parents has a significant impact on society. Some of these people get to work for very profitable multinationals, and to some of them, our civilization is merely a meritocracy in which they deserve what they receive. To others, however, our system is unfair and leaving people behind. The increasing globalization has mostly caused problems to older labourers – jobs have moved away to cheaper countries, and re-educating is often difficult.

Meanwhile, inequality increased, and income distributions became more skewed. These changes, among others, have caused anger for a lot of people. These people feel underrepresented and often think the media and government are against them. This results in a lot of people retrieving their information from highly subjective and conservative news networks or social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The latter being utterly problematic as users are very prone to reading fake news. To some extent, this causes the polarizing trends we see in western countries, and I am sure in many non-western countries as well.

The democratic country that has possibly been affected the most by a polarized electorate is the United States. Amplified by a practically two-party system, many angry voters decided they had to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 to be heard and to make a change. Of course, there were tons of issues with this election, among them the problems of social media and news networks mentioned before, but things have not changed at all. These occurrences in the last years should have worked as a warning, but I do not think they have. Facebook recently announced that they are not going to filter news on credibility, despite what happened in 2016, which is ridiculous if you think about it. Until we make changes in our system, individuals will absorb less, and less objective news and societies will become more and more polarized. It is a cycle that moves civilization further away from pragmatic solutions and, as Paul Collier said in his book ‘The Future of Capitalism’: populism and ideology are the biggest enemies of pragmatism, which Trump’s election is the perfect example of.

This new era is bringing new challenges every day to us as a society. However, until we, as a society, learn to work together and see things from others’ perspectives, no pragmatic solutions can be found for the most critical challenges we face such as climate change, institutional racism or international conflicts. Polarization has caused some countries to lose perspective and a plan.

On the ship of state, conservatives and liberals pulled too hard on the helm, which caused the helm to break. And until we fix the helm, a new course will not be found for the ship of state.