Political Polarization and the So-Called Human Rights Backlash

Societal polarization describes a state of society deeply divided due to disagreement over issues often cultural by default and related to people’s moral values. As such, societal polarization is a consequence of the culture wars and states of moral panic. Lately a few such episodes have affected political life in the Czech Republic and, consequently, have influenced the lives of individual people as well. Among these are, for instance, the refugee crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar disputes are emerging around gender-related issues, inclusion, international relations and so on.

One of the ignored costs of these polarizing conflicts is the trivialization of human rights and democratic principles, such as the right of asylum, sexual and reproductive rights and equality (including gender equality), which have now become the subject matter for conflicts between two antagonistic groups. These conflicts slowly empty the concept of human rights of its original meaning, and it is increasingly becoming a floating signifier to which the actors in the conflict attempt to ascribe different, modified meanings. On the one hand, rhetorical innovations such as “the rights of the silent majority”, “parental rights”, “the rights of the traditional family” and “equality in dignity” (instead of gender equality) protect certain values. On the other hand, the aim of these innovations is to hinder or even delegitimize the human rights of discriminated groups. On the discursive level, we can observe a rearticulation of an entire range of concepts which—until recently—helped to promote progressive social politics (gender, right of asylum, diversity, minority rights, women’s rights, etc.). The newly introduced and discussed concepts (so-called gender ideology, “the dictatorship of minorities”, “organized migration”, “the Islamization of Europe”, “culture revolution”, etc.) lead to conflicts which fundamentally limit the societal and political legitimacy of progressive politics and the general protection of individual human rights. Developments such as these have resulted in the growing stigmatization of certain groups, undermining state politics in matters like inclusion or asylum, and the real or potential limitation of individual human rights.

As a long-term consequence, these phenomena contribute to growing tendencies that undermine the current human rights regime and its institutions as well as relativize its norms of universal equality and access to human rights—in other words, a human rights backlash.

Critical Approach

Societal polarization has been thus far scrutinized as a product of the “challengers of democracy”, such as far-right populist representatives who use the stigmatization of scapegoats as their main strategy in appealing to a target electorate. The promoters of human rights have often had to deal with and oppose controversial political campaigns laden with racist content and focus on improving the general image of the stigmatized minorities. This approach of “refuting myths” has not proven terribly constructive. In the context of polarization, it is seen only as the politics of the liberal camp.

The aim of the OLIPOL project is to deepen the understanding of societal polarization. Our goal is to extend the analysis of culture wars beyond scrutinizing the strategies of the far right. We see the culture wars as stemming from the dynamics of polarization, which the liberal part of society (unconsciously) contributes to as well; a transformation of political conflict to the symbolical sphere; the nature of political communication and the present model of (non)representation in democracy as well as changes caused by globalization.

The aim therefore of the OLIPOL project is to take all the mentioned aspects into consideration and scrutinize the sources and consequences of polarization in its full complexity, as well as the course of and actors involved in the polarized episodes, and reflect on the aspects of liberalism which make the undermining of universal norms possible.

Practical Outcome

Together with our partner, Nesehnutí, we attempt to use the insights of our analysis in order to answer how societal polarization affects the issue of equality in the area of human rights and dignity. In cooperation with our partner, we will create educational material for people who deal with the consequences of polarization in their work—teachers and social workers. The OLIPOL project puts emphasis on the dissemination of the analysis’s findings.