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