Some Thoughts on Polarisation


Dylan Madden | 28 May 2018

Working with a few topical and personal case studies, Warwick student Dylan Madden demonstrates how political polarisation muddies the waters of useful debate. It needn’t be like this.

How’s this for a sad story – I, born and raised in Glasgow’s East End and with expected political views, watched a fellow Glaswegian turn into a Trump supporter on Twitter. I saw every stage of the process, which happened with excruciating slowness; it started with simple distaste for the folly of ‘social justice warriors’ and ended in more or less complete agreement with the implausibly-haired one himself.


What made this especially grim was that, as far as I could tell, this man wasn’t very different from me when he started on his path. I don’t know exactly what his political views were, but they were not right-wing, and, based on his tweets, we seemed to have a similar sense of humour. This is instructive already, since it gives an insight into how political allegiances can shift, and proves that they can shift in surprising, counterintuitive ways. To see a Glaswegian from a working-class background arguing against gun control, for example, has something bizarre, and, from my point of view, slightly unpleasant about it. Although I’m sure many would agree with that, it’s a little difficult to pin down the exact reason: I can definitely say that there’s a suspicious feeling of unnaturalness to it. Since gun control is more or less a non-issue in the U.K., I couldn’t help but feel that the man was arguing for an agenda which was not entirely his own. As we’ll see, this feeling was correct.  The story so far already gives a good example of what I want to talk about: this man disagreed with some of the modern left’s behaviour, said to himself, ‘I’m definitely not part of that crowd’, and ended up joining the right.


I could go on in this self-pitying vein, but there are enough articles by lefties (justly) bemoaning Trump’s presidency; and anyway, the story doesn’t end there. Sometime after the transformation I just described, our man took the ‘Political Compass’ quiz (See above). For those of you who haven’t heard of this, it’s a free questionnaire which assigns you a point on a flat plane. The position of the point is supposed to represent your political position.


The curious reader who takes this test will notice that its design is flawed, but I think it can be relied on to at least track the broad outlines of a person’s thought. Our man was very surprised to find himself comfortably in the bottom-left corner, and said as much. I don’t remember his exact words, but he wrote something like, ‘Apparently I’m a leftist. I thought I was on the right!’ This disturbed me even further; to explain exactly why, I want to say something about the origin of the ‘polarisation’ metaphor.

The term comes from the study of electromagnetism. The relevant point is that if some particle has any electric charge at all, that charge is either positive or negative: there’s no option in-between. In high school physics, you also learn that there’s nothing intrinsically ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ about charged particles: the names are a matter of convention, and what really defines their interaction is simply the fact of their opposition. In the case I described, which I think is generic enough that we can safely assume it isn’t isolated, the term ‘polarisation’ is far more apt than is usually supposed: a man dislikes some of the behaviour of the left, and immediately begins to move rightward, flying in the face of the views that he really holds. In this case, ‘left’ and ‘right’, like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, have become mere names, defined by their opposition and nothing else. This is one reason among many that we should do all we can to fight against political tribalism and polarisation: when they’re severe enough, these things can leave us in the absurd position of arguing in favour of views that we don’t actually hold.


For another example of the absurdity which political polarisation causes, you can take the reaction to the paper you hold in your hands. Its manifesto said, roughly, that the Review has no official political stance, but tends towards dissent, and if this means publishing right-wing material, so be it. Despite this, just about every criticism of the Review centred on its supposed right-wing viewpoint. Here’s a sample of descriptions culled from such criticisms: ‘alt-right bulletin’, ‘lolberterian’, ‘Tory’, ‘classist’. A complete list would certainly be much longer, but I think this is a pretty representative sample.


I also think it’s telling that the focus of controversy was Marieanne Stephens’ excellent short story. For those who don’t know, the piece took the form of an effective and disturbing description of a woman sexually assaulting and murdering another woman, told from the attacker’s point of view. Because of its unpleasant nature, the story was preceded by a warning. To properly call this ‘right wing’, you need to make two assumptions: first, you need to assume that the story promotes misogyny, and then you need to assume that misogyny is inherently right-wing. Dodgy reasoning, I’m sure you’ll agree. Even if you somehow accept it, it’s only proven to you that the Review is right-wing; to ‘prove’ that the terms I quoted above apply, you’d need even wilder and shoddier reasoning than that. As suspect as all of this is, as far as I can tell, it’s the foundation for much all of the negative criticism of The Review.

Why do I think this says something about political polarisation? Simply put, because of polarisation, most left-wing critics of the Review wanted it to be right-wing. It said in its manifesto that it was not left-wing; therefore, it must be right-wing.  As I’ve shown, the reasoning for the Review being right-wing is so shaky that even calling it ‘reasoning’ is charitable; and yet, this is the view that many people actually hold. Even a blunt assertion, in the manifesto, that it was not right wing was not enough to quiet these detractors.

We live in murky times. I think that everybody, no matter what their political position, should be worried about the current commonness of so-called ‘disinformation.’ I hardly ever feel confident that I know the truth about what goes on in the news these days, and to be honest, this scares me. Although my examples are on a relatively small scale, I hope I’ve shown that political polarisation is a big factor in muddying the waters, and that we should therefore do whatever it takes to lessen or get rid of it, in ourselves and others.

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