Society

Poland, A Case Study In Modern Political Tribalism

Poles are divided into hostile tribes. Radicalization is on the rise, and institutions do little to support those trying to tame it.

Crowds gather in Warsaw, Poland to protest against a near-total ban on abortion
Anna Mierzyńska

-Analysis-

WARSAW — If you're not with us, you're against us. The enemy must be destroyed. He has no rights or dignity. This way of thinking is, unfortunately, becoming more and more popular in Poland. It justifies hate speech and violence. And even though we know that polarization and radicalization is a growing problem, almost no one is working to slow down the process. Those who are trying to confront the issue get little support in Poland.

On April 12, the Facebook page of the Anti-Polonism Monitoring Center (AMC) — a foundation created by Dariusz Matecki, the head of the right-wing, Catholic and nationalistic party United Poland in Western Pomerania and an associate of the party leader Zbigniew Ziobro — published a photo of a young girl "jumping on the graves of Polish soldiers."

In reality, she was standing on a gravestone cross. And yet, after receiving the photo from an unknown source (most likely before the girl posted it online) the AMC decided to notify the prosecutor's office.

"This time, the case is about desecrating a resting place. It is likely that a minor posted a picture on social media of her jumping on the graves of Polish soldiers killed on August 18, 1920, during the Battle of Brodnica Polish victory against the Soviets." The AMC also reported that the girl faces up to two years in prison for doing so.

Among the words use to describe the 12-year-old girl were: monster, imbecile, idiot, retard...

The fact that the girl in the photo wasn't actually jumping didn't stop numerous media outlets, most of them right-wing, from echoing the "jumping on the graves of Polish soldiers' refrain while hyping up the so-called "scandal at the cemetery." The police investigated the case and identified the perpetrator, who turned out to be a 12-year-old girl from Brodnica. The Anti-Polonism Monitoring Center announced on Facebook that her case will be taken to the juvenile court.

The AMC's posts themselves aroused strong reactions: at least several dozen comments appeared under each entry, and more than 800 under the first one. The most popular was a call for the restoration of caning. Its author, Rita, explained her proposal this way: "I think a hundred lashes on the ass will cure her of her affliction."

Other comments included:

Andrzej — "Her parents should be publicly flogged." Krzysztof — "It's the product of a laxist education and Jurek Owsiak's popular song Do Whatever You Want!" Agnieszka — "She needs a good beating!" Zosia — "I would beat this one so bad that she couldn't walk straight." Zenon — "She is one of those degenerate left-wing individuals." Ryszard — "This is the rainbow anointed youth of the women's rights activist Mrs. Lempart."

Among the words use to describe the 12-year-old girl were: monster, imbecile, idiot, retard, dumbass, parasite, savage, jackass, mutt, moron, and test-tube embryo.

This was not the work of Russian or paid trolls. Behind the comments are Poles — ordinary ones, from all over the country, and with the obvious approval of the moderators of the AMC page, who do not react to such comments. They do not delete them, do not block those who call the girl names or wish her dead. The commentators dehumanize the 12-year-old because she is, in their eyes, a "leftist" or "a rainbow anointed youth of Mrs. Lempart." She belongs to the opposite tribe, towards whom hostility, violence and dehumanization are, from their perspective, justified.

Rising radicalization

This is how Poles get radicalized. And the Brodnica incident, sadly, is just one of many examples of this process. Similar discussions in social media happen every day, and not only among supporters of the right wing.

The same mechanism was at work when the account of the Young Left called professor Leszek Balcerowicz, former chairman of the National Bank and deputy prime minister of Poland, the "Mengele of the Polish economy" and published a photo where he was represented blindfolded, in a post inviting to a debate with him. In that case, fortunately, the post was removed, and the youth group took action against its author. The comments under the AMC posts, in contrast, are still there for everyone to see.

Social polarization is a process that has been visible for several years in the Polish public debate, and one that gained a lot of momentum after the informal conservative political alliance United Right took power.

A pro-LGBT protester wearing the rainbow flag makes a gesture at a demonstration in Krakow, Poland — Photo: Cezary Kowalski/SOPA Images/ZUMA

"One of the consequences of polarization is radicalization, and in Poland, it happens mainly towards the right," says Stanislaw Czerczak of the Gorzow-based foundation CODEX, which works towards preventing radicalization. "I am convinced the boundary between polarization and radicalization has already been crossed: It happened when those in power together with some clergymen of the Catholic Church started to dehumanize LGBTQ people. Poland is a very radicalized country."

Although we have already begun to talk about the dangers of social divisions in Poland, there is still a lack of ideas and willingness to counteract this process. Those who try to discuss it are alone. For example, the Catholic magazine Więź, Polish for "believe," has been inviting people to discuss how to rebuild the community for the past months.

Activists working on the de-escalation of conflicts, such as the aforementioned CODEX foundation or the Institute for Social Security, are more and more often denied money for their projects. Although their leaders belong to the EU's Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), which brings together European experts to prevent extremism, they have very limited opportunities for action in Poland.

Czerczak, founder and leader of CODEX and an extremist himself in the 1990s, when he belonged to a neo-Nazi group, used to his experience (as a warning) with students in school meetings. He participated in dozens of such gatherings, but the last one took place three years ago. It was decided that allowing outsiders into schools was controversial, and teachers stopped organizing such interventions.

"I was convinced that after the 2019 assassination of the progressive mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, which, in my opinion, was an act of politically motivated terror, professional steps would be taken to prevent radicalization," Czerczak says. "But so far not much has changed."

No easy fixes

In other European countries and in the United States, awareness of the negative effects of polarization has long prompted initiatives that teach how to resolve conflicts without violence, de-escalate social tensions (e.g., during street protests) and create a safe space for meetings between people with opposing views.

In the Netherlands, students created the "Dare To Be Gray" initiative, which addresses "people in the middle," namely those who have not yet succumbed to polarization. In 2016, it won an international competition in Washington D.C. for ideas on how to reduce extremism through social media.

In Ireland, an organization called the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation runs so-called dialogue circles, which are not about reaching an agreement, but about seeing people with different views as human beings, rather than enemies, monsters or people lacking brains. "The message is not that everyone should be "together," but that by creating new ways to understand each other, we can move forward and transcend the legacy of conflict," the activists explain.

I realized that harboring hatred for other people was most of all self-destructive.

There are also projects, including the international organization Woman Without Borders, aimed especially at mothers, since they can take the first depolarizing actions in their local communities or families. And in the United States, there are organizations such as the DC Peace Team that teach volunteers how to de-escalate conflicts in the streets. Activists trained by them minimized social tensions just recently, in the period between the attack on the Washington Capitol on Jan. 6 and the swearing-in of President Joe Biden.

Here in Europe, experts of the EU RAN network prepared a handbook four years ago on preventing polarization. It is a set of specific tips, addressed to teachers, local government officials, politicians and police officers, and it's available online in Polish. And yet, does anyone in Poland even know about it?

"In Western European countries, de-escalation had already been dealt with seriously, because of fears over Islamic terrorism," CODEX's Stanislaw Czerczak says. "This meant that they already had the tools to work on the problem of right-wing radicalization when it appeared. In our country, those kinds of tools don't exist. There are a few community organizations working on it, but it's always been on the margin. And for the last few years there has been no will to make even this scale of activity happen."

So what we can do right now to reduce divisions in Poland? The Czerczak is quick to admit that there are no simple recipes.

"We need many small activities, but on a mass scale — at schools, when working with young people, but also, for example, in the media," he says. "We need to talk about it as much as possible, to educate, to debunk the myth that there is no radicalism in Poland, to give testimonies of people who became radicalized and came out of it."

The other key, the activist explains, is to think about ways we, as individuals, can change our behavior on an everyday basis. "I remember what I used to do," Czerczak says. "And then I realized that harboring hatred for other people or just constantly judging them was above all self-destructive. So I decided to be kinder to people. And it worked."

* Anna Mierzynska is a social media analyst and public sector marketing specialist.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

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✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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