Ethnic, social class differences exaggerated in Dutch media: Policy advisor

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The gap between ethnicities, social classes and various education levels is smaller then you might think, according to Wil Tiemeijer, researcher at the scientific council for government policy WRR. But constantly talking about it and reading about it in the media exaggerates the problem, he said to newspaper Trouw.

Tiemeijer wrote the study "What's wrong with social division?" for the WRR. It will be published today. The study focuses on what exactly social divisions are and whether they really exist in the Netherlands. According to the newspaper, the study reads like a plea for more nuance and accuracy in the public debate about the matter.

According to the researcher, all the talk about the "gap" between population, about a "growing dichotomy" and about "social divisions" are not without risk. "We should not conceal differences. But if we keep repeating that deep divisions run through society, it will affect how we perceive the facts", Tiemeijer said to the newspaper.  "Then we'll start believing it ourselves, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is automatically true."

That is something to be avoided, Tiemeijer said. "Social cohesion does not come from one day to another, it stems from a long history of shared experiences. If the opposite happens, polarization goes too far, it will not be quickly repaired."

Tiemeijer advises that words like "divide" be avoided in public debate and media. "The word suggests that the population is divided into two parts and that almost automatically leads to ignoring the existence of  middle groups. That stands in the way of a clear view of what is happening in society." The concept of "dividing lines" is more accurate, but that should also not be used too lightly. 

He calls on precision and nuance when it comes to discussing this topic. "Which divisions are we talking about? First say that specifically. Just generally talking about dividing lines does not work."

He uses the dividing line between so-called "autochtone" (Dutch citizens with two Dutch parents) and "allochtonen" (Dutch citizens with at least one non-Dutch parent) as an example. "When it comes to origin, the Netherlands has dozens of different groups. Yes, in the imagination of many people ther is a divide. But who is against whom? Where does the dividing line run? Be specific, do not keep using such big words."

According to Tiemeijer, the Netherlands is a "high trust society" - a country that belongs to the "world's top" when it comes to trust between residents. "In most other countries, that mutual trust is much less, and that already shows that trust is not a given: a country can lose it. We therefore have to be careful, we have to be very sparing with that mutual trust."

Scientific literature shows that the greatest threat to mutual trust in the Netherlands is growing socio-economic disparities, Tiemeijer said. In the same breath he added that we should not exaggerate it. "Those differences have increased over the last ten to twenty years. But compared with many other countries, they are still quite small in the Netherlands."

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