Friday 27 September 2013

Do we care about rising polarization?

Most of us will agree we see rising polarization in recent years, both in Malaysia and around the world. The usual polarizing issues are religion, race, income or wealth, culture and political ideologies.

The manifestation of this division takes many forms. We see civilized political differences like in Western Democracies. An example is the increasingly divisive politics of the democrats and the republicans in the United States.

Others take the extreme form, and the Al Qaeda comes to mind. The burning and bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the war in Syria and Somalia are other examples of extremism.

Many of these polarizing issues become more extreme and appear to correlate with more freedom or democracy. Examples are the Buddhist attack on the Muslim population in Myanmar and the turmoil in Egypt. This is not to suggest that we stop striving for greater freedom. We are reminded of the famous quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”.

In Malaysia, I believe we are now living in a much more polarized country, in issues of race, religion and politics. The politics of Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat have sharply divided the nation. The “Allah” and forced conversion issues brought religion to the forefront of daily conversations and shows rising intolerance. Perkasa and others have removed any pretension or embarrassment to take extreme and bigoted views on race.

What account for the rise in polarization?

When people are placed in groups, they tend to make decisions and form opinions that are more extreme than their initial views as an individual. Sociologists describe this tendency as “group polarization”.

There are different theories proposed. One school of thought is the desire of individuals for acceptance by the group and they therefore take a position similar to everyone else’s. They are also tempted to be a little more extreme to present themselves as group “leaders”.

Another theory suggests that people become even more convinced of their views as they hear similar and more novel arguments amongst the group members.

Political scientists have also shown that politicians have an incentive to advance and support polarized positions. Besides, elites (whether politicians, businessmen or social figures) when threatened and feeling insecure, will often resort to provocations, name-calling, incitement and false accusations to legitimize their extractive and monopolistic behaviours.

Further, gerrymandering, or the practice of redistricting creates political polarization by making more homogeneous electoral districts.

The fragmented, high-choice media scene (both print and online) has moved contents to one that is more antagonistic and one-sided from more even-toned programming to induce readerships and audiences.

All the reasons above that support the rise of group polarization are further compounded and accelerated by the popular use of the Internet and online networking. Online social media such as Facebook and Twitter encourage people to seek out others who share similar interests, ideas and values.

Studies have found that group discussions, conducted when discussants are in a distributed (cannot see one another) or anonymous (cannot identify one another) environment will lead to even higher levels of group polarization compared to traditional face to face meetings.

What can we do?

The analysis above suggests that the tendency for extremism is real and the causes for polarization are inherent in our behavior. It is now further exaggerated by the popular use of the Internet and online networking media.

If left unchecked, we are heading to the abyss of a divisive society.

I believe people of knowledge, people of moderation and people of goodwill are duty bound to act to try to prevent this calamity.

Society do tend to bend towards the course of fairness, justice and moderation, But they do not bend easily on its own. We need to help it along. It is our human value and responsibility.

Given that the Internet and social media has now become the dominant facilitator of group polarization, we can only begin to help society away from this polarizing trend by also being part of the Internet and social media.

And it is for this that I have decided to begin this blog.


  1. I would reckon some 'groups' or the so-called super 'elites' will be the great defender or proponent of polarization. These groups definitely will make a 'kill' from this phenomena. I suspect the property speculators will be a good example. Of late they are experiencing extraordinary gain in their investment. The worrisome question, is there an advanced group conducting 'social experiment' on us? Evidently our economists or policymakers have failed to measure the possible economic, social or opportunity cost to the nation. Another blind spot that we may have to consider is....are we better off in divided manner?

  2. Good deed. Reaching out to the non-English social media (Blog and FB forums) would be a far more effective way to offer moderate view and wider perspectives to their audience base. We need greater force of moderate and unbiased participants to actively listen to these polarized group and get our views heard. Society has the tendency to be circled by audience who share the same view and common value. As I am lacking the appeal to be heard by audience who has chosen the extreme views, I have to instead reach-out to this community by visiting Bahasa and Chinese FB or blogs to see what they discuss and offer my "other side of perspectives" in a non-antagonize way. Hope more will do the same. And we need an organized approach to encourage the people of knowledge, people of moderation and people of goodwill to inculcate this in the language that the herds could understand.

    1. It's a good idea that such dialogues are also conducted within the Bahasa and Chinese blogs. One possibility I will look into is the translation of my articles.

    2. I am happy to translate your articles into BM (can't read or write Chinese, unfortunately) if you would like. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that I have no prior translation or editing experience and my only skill is full proficiency and affinity with BM as my first language. Nevertheless, I am eager and willing to work for free and will be grateful for the experience.

  3. "Work should not just be rewarding but also fun and fulfilling. Work should not be work, but a challenge, a fun game, to make things better, to help others, to enjoy." [2010] I agree 100% your past quote

  4. Well, u sound like we need to go back Communist.. .all equal. Haa...may be my interpretation is wrong. I think polarization is healthy if all group understand and respect each others. U have Democratic & Republicans fight like kindergarten kids but in a orderly & open manners. In developing countries such as Malaysia, the problem with us is we tend to bring in issues non related issues when arguing some topics especially religions & races. The smart ass politicians know that is a immature group which will support them with bring in such topics which I think is very unhealthy & will lead to social unrest. This group of smart & corrupted politicians never fight for real intention but they just want to retent their powers .