This essay is about one of the most unappreciated, unexplored and underestimated characteristics of modern times.
Polarisation in the age of retweets and likes
During their 80 or so years here on earth, an average human spends roughly 12 years watching television and 8 years on social media. That’s an average of 20 years (!) spent looking at a screen – years that play a crucial role in shaping our worldview.
That worldview probably goes something like this.
Our world is more polarised than ever before. We’re diametrically opposed to each other on virtually every issue that matters. Climate, immigration, refugees, racism – you name it. We’re stuck in our own filter bubbles, or worse, filter bunkers. This polarisation has become so extreme that we not only hold different opinions but also believe in "alternative facts". The world is divided into black and white, left and right, for and against – and between them there’s a yawning chasm filled with disdain, disregard and disrespect.
Nowhere is that chasm more visible than on Twitter. There, in the realm of indignant retweets and polarisation-by-a-thousand-likes, two camps are engaged in a form of digital trench warfare. Trending in one camp: the climate apocalypse, the war on facts, and Trump as Liar-in-Chief. Trending in the other: the climate hoax, fake news, and Trump as a “straight shooter” who “tells it like it is”.
In between those two extremes: the sound of crickets. Lots and lots of crickets.
In the realm of indignant retweets and polarisation-by-a-thousand-likes, two camps are engaged in a form of digital trench warfare.
These virtual trenches have expanded into our living rooms through the medium of television, where the algorithms of outrage have found their perfect match in television’s incessant quest for ratings. Every evening, talkshows fill up with pundits spouting wildly opposing views. Talking heads, carefully chosen for their inability to agree on anything. Channel after channel, unmoderated partisan squabbling passes for “public debate”. Joining us tonight: six unqualified self-promoters who’ll never see eye-to-eye.
This war of opinion tribes hasn’t gone unnoticed in other media, either. Newspapers around the world are filled with columns lamenting our unbridgeable ideological divides; PowerPoint presentations on polarisation echo through academic halls; titles such as Democracy Divided and Fight Club Politics line the shelves of our local bookstores and libraries. The exact headlines and titles may vary, but their messages are the same: humankind has never been so divided about so many things.
In my home country of the Netherlands, 75% of the population feel that society is becoming increasingly polarised on social issues. In the US, it’s no different. Almost eight in 10 US Americans think the country is increasingly polarised.
The one thing we can all agree on is our growing inability to agree.
There’s only one small problem with this perception: it’s mostly wrong.
Directly under the bit about how Dutch people feel increasingly divided, that same report also notes: “Polls indicate that there is little reason to be concerned about increasing polarisation or the hardening of public discourse.”
Right there, summed up in 126 characters, zero retweets and zero likes, is a description of what could rightly be called an everyday miracle: the ubiquitous, virtually Twitter-proof consensus that surrounds us.
Or simply put, we agree more than we think we do.
Nearly everyone accepts climate science
To be clear, I’m not trying to deny the existence of polarisation in politics or ignore the fact that certain groups hold fundamentally opposing views. Both are clearly true. For evidence, we need to look no further than the many protest marches, social media feuds, and hotly contested elections and referendums. And thankfully so, because only in a totalitarian society would you find everyone talking, thinking, and voting the same.
But what we tend to overlook is the often-astounding level of agreement that exists between the extremes. The opposite ends of the opinion spectrum aren’t separated by a gaping chasm but by the vast, unspoken consensus of the Twitter-averse majority.
Take the climate crisis, for example. Often portrayed as the most divisive issue facing humanity today, but in reality there’s an almost unrivalled consensus.
Even in the US, where the president and Fox News have been relentlessly peddling climate scepticism and conspiracy, 80% of people still regard climate change as a threat to the country’s wellbeing.
Between 80% and 90% of people worldwide acknowledge that global warming exists and is caused by, or partly caused by, human activity. In Europe, as many as 93% of respondents believe that climate change is a serious problem – and at least 75% think we’re facing a “climate emergency”.
Even in the US, where the president and Fox News have been relentlessly peddling climate scepticism and conspiracy, 80% of people still regard climate change as a threat to the country’s wellbeing, and almost 60% even list it as a top concern.
And it’s not just the public who are in agreement with one another; there’s also widespread consensus among institutions. No fewer than 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, as do 197 governments worldwide, 75% of the European parliament, and virtually all oil companies, including giants such as Shell, ExxonMobil and BP.
Outright denial of the problem or scepticism about whether humans are to blame is incredibly rare, varying between 1% and 10%, depending on the group being polled. However, this scepticism receives a disproportionate amount of attention, particularly online. One major comparative study found that climate sceptics receive about the same amount of coverage as actual climate scientists in mainstream media, and one-and-a-half times more coverage in online media.
After the commercial break: Sean Hannity on the climate hoax.
Less hate, more unity
Climate change isn’t the only “polarising” issue on which there is a remarkably broad – yet relatively overlooked – consensus. Topics such as immigration, the European Union (EU), and the future of democracy are also the subject of relatively widespread – even growing – agreement.
Between the outspoken critics and the Twitter warriors is a vast group of people who make up what is perhaps the largest and least vocal “bubble”: those who share a critical, yet moderate view of the world.
In the Netherlands, where I live, for example, this group is willing to welcome refugees (70%), wants to stay in the EU (71%), has faith in democratic institutions (70%), and their fellow human beings (62%). Over the past 30 years, Dutch people have moved steadily toward greater agreement on issues such as income redistribution, euthanasia and abortion.
Between the outspoken critics and the Twitter warriors is a vast group of people who make up what is perhaps the largest and least vocal ‘bubble’: those who share a critical, yet moderate view of the world.
And despite the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in modern political discourse, our feelings about multiculturalism have actually grown milder with time. In 1994, nearly 50% of all Dutch respondents believed that there were too many people of “other nationalities” living in the Netherlands. 25 years later, that figure has dropped to 31%.
The Netherlands Institute for Social Research puts it plainly: “Broadly speaking [the evidence] does not show that opinions have moved further apart or come to be associated with negative images and emotions about people who hold different views.”
When asked whether they felt hatred towards certain people due to their views, only 16% of respondents agreed – 3% less than in 1970.
Even in the US, notorious for its deep divisions and partisan politics, people tend to agree more than they realise. Nearly 80% of Americans are in favour of higher taxes for the rich, two-thirds want the government to do more to combat climate change and conserve the environment, and roughly the same number say that immigrants strengthen society – twice as many as 25 years ago.
Of course there’s conflict, but how much?
There’s no denying the existence of significant ideological conflict in our world or the deep social and economic divisions between rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, higher and lower levels of education.
In the Netherlands, heated discussions about the figure of Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) erupt each holiday season like clockwork, and with good reason: one group feels their cherished tradition is under attack, while the other sees itself discriminated with racist stereotypes. In the US, Donald Trump’s strategy of divide and conquer has led to bitter family disputes, a paralysed Congress, and a divisive impeachment process. And the Disunited Kingdom is being torn apart by Brexit, as conflicting views on Europe have trapped the country in a political stalemate.
Consensus elsewhere doesn’t trivialise these tribal differences.
At the same time, the disproportionate amount of attention these issues receive has led us to believe that our differences of opinion are much greater than they actually are.
So why do we feel so divided? ‘Antisocial media’
Despite all we have in common, we still feel more divided than ever before. Funnily enough, we tend to agree on the source of our perceived disagreement: most people point the finger squarely at traditional and social media.
And they may just be right. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that as many as 91% of all tweets by US users are produced by the most outspoken supporters and opponents of President Trump. For tweets with political content, this figure jumps to 97%. Americans in the middle of the political spectrum are responsible for only 9% of all US tweets and a scant 3% of tweets about US politics.
Twitter’s skewed representation of American political views is mirrored by the unequal distribution of power in American mainstream media. While Fox News is the most watched – and most influential – news outlet in the US, it only averages around 2.5 million viewers out of a total population of over 327 million. Even Fox News’s best-watched show only attracts roughly 3.5 million viewers, no more than 1% of the US population. And yet everyone always seems to be talking about Fox News.
Funnily enough, we tend to agree on the source of our perceived disagreement: most people point the finger squarely at traditional and social media.
Driving our feelings of polarisation are what we might call the “antisocial media”: a continuous stream of contentious reporting and trending topics, consumed and shared by the groups with the loudest – and most extreme – opinions. It’s not so much that our views are diverging, but that our differences of opinion have become far more visible.
Modern theories about filter bubbles and echo chambers aside, the fact is that people today are much less confined to ideological bubbles than they were in the past. Previous generations often lived out their whole lives in the same town, attended the same church, listened to the same sermons, read the same newspapers, and chatted with like-minded folks down at the local pub.
The rise of the internet may have added a few new filters to the mix, but it also eliminated many more. Suddenly, contrarian views that had remained unseen and unheard began to pop up on our feeds, exposing us to completely new perspectives.
The more we agree, the more our differences stand out
In this time of growing consensus, we’re being exposed to a wider variety of opinions than ever before.
Which brings us to perhaps the most paradoxical reason for our perceived polarisation: the existence of a strong, underlying consensus is actually causing us to become increasingly sensitive to subtle differences of opinion. In other words, the more we agree, the more intolerant we become of the differences that still remain.
Within the field of sociology, this phenomenon has been explored more thoroughly in the context of risk. Our society has become exponentially safer over the past several centuries, making us increasingly intolerant of the dangers that still exist. For example, as public displays of aggression have declined, we’ve come to find such behaviour increasingly unacceptable, leading to an increased focus on violence. There’s less violence overall, but it makes the news more often. As a result, many people are convinced that aggression is on the rise, even though the reverse is actually true.
The more cohesive society grows, the more we become obsessed with the differences that still remain – and the more we grow to despise them.
Dutch sociologist Gabriël van den Brink calls this phenomenon “moral elevation”. As a society becomes more “moral” (read: safer, more humane, more equitable), it raises the moral bar accordingly. This leaves us quicker to notice and call out any lingering dangers, unacceptable behaviour, or inequality.
Something similar could be said about the way our society deals with differences of opinion. The more cohesive society grows, the more we become obsessed with the differences that still remain – and the more we grow to despise them. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, called this the “narcissism of small differences”: the smaller the differences between us, the more attuned we become to them, and the more likely they will lead to quarrels and disputes.
In other words, not only do we agree more than we realise, but we also strive to agree even more than we already do.
Now that’s something I think we can all agree on in our own way.