The Social Identity Theory indicates that we identify ourselves socially by the social groups we are part of. Members of a social group maintain their identity by the common beliefs they share and the emotional value linked to that membership. It is always expected for comparisons to arise within the group or outside the group. The members assess their social position in relation to a different social group. The desire of every social group is to achieve social distinction from another group. Normally, it is rare to find one social group trying hard to become similar to another group. The issue of self-esteem and psychological security arises from such differentiation, hence intolerance. A conflict can arise between groups as a way of defending their beliefs and values, especially if one considers the other a potential threat. Social identities strongly contribute to political intolerance. Political tolerance in a democratic society depends on the values of the group in power, and the willingness of the common man to adhere to these values. This paper discusses some of the causes of conflict between social groups reviewed from literature about political tolerance and social identity theory.
One of the main factors attributed to intergroup conflicts is the perception of threat. Conflict can arise when the norms or proper behavior of a group are violated. It is important to note that groups that are easily threatened or sensitive are likely to develop intolerance in case of even the notion of a possible violation of their norms. In the political environment, intergroup conflicts, which lead to intolerance, occur when one political group is perceived as a threat. The threat may be in the form of violation of the normal values of the ruling class. For instance, unpopular groups like communists, socialists or atheists are often seen as a threat by the political group in power due to their activities. They are more likely to question governing methods or the values of those in power, especially when they feel their rights are not respected. Political elites, in turn, can use the media to control the perception of the public towards unpopular groups. This, however, depends on the nature of the activities of the extremists. If their actions are brought out as normal by the media and the ruling class, most of the common citizens will easily tolerate them. If, on the other hand, their activities are portrayed to go against the norms of the society, even the public will not tolerate them. A social group may feel threatened by another group they perceive as capable of becoming more powerful than them. This is best exemplified by political parties struggling for power. The ruling group may use several methods to undermine the opposition or the less popular group. For example, by restricting their rights, imposing punitive measures on them. Under these circumstances, the role of the media becomes crucial because it may determine the level of the conflict. If it sides with the ruling party, then public majority may be intolerant towards the opposition. However, the media sides with the public, then the conflict may be so great that a political revolution may occur.
Another cause of intergroup conflict is personality. According to Stouffer, parents who apply stern methods to raise their children and those who are pessimistic are less tolerant to new ideologies than those who apply more permissive methods and are optimistic. Studies have also shown a relationship between personality, age, level of education, flexibility, and self-esteem. The personality of a person is determined by the state of his or her mind. The thoughts and beliefs one subscribes to affects their judgment. Older people are less likely to accept non-conforming ideologies than the younger generation. Conflicts are, therefore, more likely to develop between these two groups based on their divergent beliefs. For instance, they may disagree on issues concerning fashion, music and even dating. The level of education can influence the manner in which a person approaches a potential conflict. It has been shown that highly educated individuals are more likely to approach a potential conflict more soberly, and in a manner that tends to avoid the conflict. The less educated individuals are more likely to reason with passion, and in a manner that aggravates the conflict. Furthermore, studies have indicated that political elites tend to be more tolerant than ordinary citizens. Political elites may hold divergent political ideologies with their rivals. However, they tend to accommodate different political views without a conflict necessarily arising. This might explain why certain countries are deeply divided political, ethnic and racial lines, yet the politicians readily interact with each other. People with low self-esteem tend to less tolerant than those with high self-esteem. This is especially true in circumstances where they perceive a threat and react quickly to counter it. The threat in this case, can be anything that may injure their self-esteem.
For a democratic society to be fully effective, all democratic values have to be observed to the latter. We live in a democratic society and would expect that all of us adhere to our democratic beliefs. Contrary to this expectation, studies found out that most citizens do not subscribe to the democratic ideologies of their countries. We can conclude that democratic ideologies and the actual practice of democracy are disconnected – the behavior of the people is not guided by their beliefs. For instance, a democratic society champions for equal rights of all citizens. Conservative individuals may subscribe to this belief, may still racially or ethnically discriminate against another individual. We can use elections as another example. Politicians may campaign with the promise of holding a free and fair election where every contestant is given an equal chance of winning. However, the ruling party may take advantage of their position to rig the elections so as to hold on to power. This is particularly common in most African countries. The practice of democracy can, therefore, be a source of conflict, hence political intolerance.
We have mentioned that people identify themselves with social groups that share similar values and beliefs. Members of each group are always protective of their values and aim to be socially distinct from other groups. It is from the desire to be different that a conflict may arise. This is particularly so when they perceive a threat to their respective values. We have also linked social identity theory to political intolerance, and seen that political intolerance may be caused by perceived threat, different personalities and the practice of democracy. We need to look for factors which reduce conflicts and bring people to co-exist peacefully.
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