The public debate about subjects like the climate, immigration and Zwarte Piet has hardened considerably over the past few years. What’s going on here?

“I think that the term ‘culture war’ is becoming an increasingly apt description. There’s still a lot of talk about polarisation, but the research doesn’t offer too many indications that people’s perspectives on individual subjects – Zwarte Piet, for instance – have drifted further apart. What we do see is that people’s views on topics that at first glance don’t seem connected in any way are starting to link up. That a person’s position on Europe relates to his or her views about eating meat. And we can also see a growing correspondence in such convictions when it comes to major themes like immigration and climate change.”

Cultural sociologist Willem de Koster is an associate professor at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Here, De Koster is working together with Jeroen van der Waal and Kjell Noordzij on the four-year research project Dutch culture wars. In this project, the three examine among other things why citizens with lower qualifications are more mistrustful of politicians and the judiciary than those with higher qualifications.

It almost sounds as if the Netherlands is going back to the days of verzuiling.

“The main difference between the verzuiling [the vertical division of society into distinct social groups] of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s is that nowadays the axes along which polarisation runs no longer relate to issues like sexual liberation, gay rights and gender equality. With the progressive secularisation of our country, these are hardly points of debate anymore. This new form of polarisation involves one group that’s attached to social order, stability and non-religious traditions and another group that embraces diversity and change. It’s a cultural conflict.”

van der schot sojamelk gehaktbal EN
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

And there are two factions in this cultural conflict?

“Yes. A few years ago, you could still severely disagree with someone on a specific point – the death penalty, for instance – while sharing the same views on some other issue – flying long-haul for your holiday, for example. But today there are fewer and fewer cross-connections between the two groups.

“In the US, they did an interesting study that shows that Democrats and Republicans see each other as very bad people whom one actually shouldn’t consort with and who, if it were up to them, should be stripped of their civil rights. Sociologists call this ‘affective polarisation’. In addition, we can see increasingly close ties between people’s political views and their lifestyle preferences. De Telegraaf or De Groene Amsterdammer, a Toyota Prius or a pickup truck, taking soy milk or regular milk with your coffee – these things have all become part of the conflict.”

Could you explain why people are so emphatically splitting into two camps?

“As a cultural sociologist, I would say that it’s a good illustration of people’s hunger for meaning; how much they want to be a part of something bigger. The world may not be God-given, but people want to fill this void nevertheless. Being part of a group, in which you are more or less expected to abide by certain rules, gives your life meaning.”

A few years ago, the Leiden political scientist Rudy Andeweg complained about the extent to which politicians and the press see it in their interest to fan the flames. Couldn’t you simply see this conflict as a revenue model to a certain degree?

“Of course, both political parties and the media can feel encouraged to cash in on social differences. It’s a quick and easy way to position yourself.”

You’ve described it as a cultural conflict. But the dissatisfaction fuelling the yellow vests movement was mainly interpreted in economic terms. Couldn’t we simply see it as a growing divide between a privileged, cosmopolitan elite and a group of ‘ordinary citizens’ who find it harder and harder to make ends meet?

“When you look at the research, the main divide runs along people’s level of education – not their economic position. It’s people with low qualifications versus those with high qualifications. One average, the highly-qualified tend to be better off financially. But in surveys like these, when you take a closer look at job security and income – both of which relate to people’s level of education – there turns out to be next to no correlation between these aspects and the viewpoints we’ve been discussing.

“An interesting example is the recent protests by Dutch farmers. If the nitrogen debate had been held in the 1950s, it would have been treated as a purely technical and economic issue. But nowadays, the debate is about national pride – about a way of life that needs to be preserved. Former State Secretary Henk Bleker was shouting from stage that we shouldn’t be bothered by those vegan losers. They were explicitly appealing to all sorts of cultural components.”

van der schot klimaatdrammer new york EN
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Since Pim Fortuyn came on the scene, everyone seems to be courting the favour of ‘the ordinary Dutch citizen’. How would you explain this trend?

“When Fortuyn first appeared, a lot of people were surprised to find anti-immigration sentiments in the Netherlands. Including in other countries. The Netherlands had always been viewed as very tolerant. But if you look at survey-based social-scientific research in the preceding years, you can already find a lot of these views being held by certain parts of the population. The only difference being they hadn’t found political expression yet. I think that in 2002, a lot of politicians – and journalists too, incidentally – were shocked by the fact that they hadn’t recognised these feelings. And they’ve been working hard to correct this ever since.”

Some people think we’ve swung too far in the other direction. Isn’t it remarkable that the farmers with their – occasionally violent – protests were cheered on across the country – and their demands met to boot – while the protesters of Extinction Rebellion were cleared off the street in a matter of hours?

“It’s a power struggle. Both sides are fighting for what they want. It’s particularly telling that the two groups are presented as diametrically opposed in the public debate. But as a cultural sociologist, I try not to take a normative view of these things.”

Your fellow sociologists Willem Schinkel and Rogier van Reekum have just written a book in which they emphatically do take a stand. In fact, they believe that it’s dangerous to act as if two parties in a debate have a position of equality when one of them is consistently threatened or marginalised.

“I don’t feel the need to comment on what my colleagues are doing. Of course, as a private citizen I have my own thoughts on such matters – like everyone else. But I won’t be telling you who we should listen to. Nor that you should automatically pay the same attention to both parties, incidentally. My position is that I have absolutely nothing to say about whom you should listen to or not, since these are normative choices that have no scientific basis whatsoever. Indeed, we aren’t having this discussion because my private opinions are so incredibly interesting, but because I’m expected to contribute something worthwhile in terms of analysis. On top of which I feel wary about adding some veneer of scientific legitimacy to what, ultimately, are my private opinions.”

Let me rephrase the question: does the culture war threaten the pleasant way in which we live together in the Netherlands?

“It leads to less social cohesion. And when you have these fierce differences, it becomes more difficult to arrive at political decisions. At the same time, this trend does contribute to a truly political debate, in which people clearly communicate their different positions. It depends your personal preferences.”

Do you have tips for us on how to safely get through Christmas dinner this year?

“What used to work, if you wanted to keep things friendly, was avoid political subjects. But this has become impossible – everything is politicised now. Whether it’s the food on your table (meat or no meat?), your aunt who’s just back from her holiday in the sun (‘shame of flying’) or grabbing a cigarette in between courses.

“So my advice would be: activate your inner sociologist. Don’t keep trying to prove your case, but rather – when someone shares a point of view that initially sounds absurd – try to determine where he or she is coming from. In my own research, I try to see things from the perspective of a very wide range of groups: from right-wing extremists on Stormfront to orthodox Protestant gays. It’s very difficult to talk someone out of a firmly-held opinion, so you may as well spend your time trying to comprehend them instead.”

Will this also bring us closer together?

“All sorts of literature from political science and sociology show that affective polarisation is reduced when people talk about what lies behind their specific positions. Because at that point it becomes clear that even if you don’t actually agree with each other, the other party’s position is still supported by arguments, making it legitimate as such. And, even more important: that it’s held by a real, flesh-and-blood person.”


Read more

Should we still dance to R. Kelly?

Dancing to Ignition, watching House of Cards or laughing at Louis C.K.’s jokes. What…