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The underused art of asking questions in the era of polarisation

Luba Kassova | April 10, 2024
The underused art of asking questions in the era of polarisation The underused art of asking questions in the era of polarisation

This article was first published in Bulgarian in

How well do we know the people closest to us, their hopes, deepest fears, dreams, most vivid memories? And why does this matter, you may think? In our increasingly polarised and distrustful world, the art of asking deep questions and sharing our stories matters greatly for societal cohesion or the lack thereof. This art determines how truly connected to one another we are, how much we trust each other and how big a part of our families’ stories we are aware of. It seems to me that we are struggling with this both globally and in Bulgaria, which leads to a more polarised society and
As things stand, Bulgarians are more likely to be afraid of one another than to trust each other. This too presents a threat to social cohesion and democracy. According to the World Values Survey conducted between 2017 and 2022 in 91 countries worldwide, only 17% of Bulgarians believe that “people can be trusted” while an overwhelming 80% believe that “we need to be very careful”. Furthermore, only 23% of Bulgarians believe that you can “trust completely” people you know personally. By contrast, more than half of Britons (51%) believe they can trust people they know completely. Given Bulgaria’s high levels of mutual distrust, what chance do we have of recognising each other’s shared humanity?
Academic research from 2021 showed that over the previous seven years, political polarisation in Europe had almost tripled compared to the 1960s. In most countries, elections that took place in the last decade were the most polarized since WW2. As for Bulgaria, in the last two years it has held five elections, a rate unmatched by any other European country, signalling a very high level of political polarisation. According to Vladimir Mitev, a Bulgarian journalist, Bulgarians no longer vote for something but against something or someone.
The growing rift in Bulgarian society extends much further than politics. It encompasses ideological and cultural divisions, deepened by Bulgarian’s high levels of ignorance around the spread of fake news fuelling higher than EU average levels of misinformation. The fissures cluster around numerous issues including competing interpretations of our communist past as oppressive or “better than the present” and the derivative division around Bulgaria’s alignment with the West/EU or Russia. Further divisions unfold around gender relations, sexuality, vaccines, support or neutrality with respect to Ukraine, and whether there should be a place for refugees in Bulgaria (a tension that intensified in 2014 after the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe). The list goes on.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”, echo the profound words of the renowned writer and poet Maya Angelou. Last month the Guardian quoted the International Booker Prize-winning writer Georgi Gospodinov reflecting that “Bulgaria is a place that is alive with stories that are mostly untold because of the culture of silence that comes from communist times, when it was safer not to say what you thought”. I would add that this heritage has led to our underdeveloped ability to ask each other meaningful questions able to crack open the treasure chest of stories within us.
At the heart of the multifaceted polarisation spreading like an oil spill in the Black Sea is our inherited suppressed ability to tell the stories that are locked inside us, as well as our inability to ask deeper questions of each other or hear the responses. Many of us remain strangers among loved ones in our own homes. Repressed questions and authentic stories are a significant driver of our pessimistic and critical views of what makes us Bulgarian. Views shaped primarily by a sensationalist media focusing on the worst of humanity.
“How are you?” is the most common question we ask each other, often lacking the patience or curiosity to listen to the response. The even more common permutation, “Are you alright?”, tightens the storytelling straitjacket further, offering only a yes or no response.
Too often we simply don’t know ourselves or each other well enough and so are too quick to blame everything negative, including the widespread corruption in our country, on Bulgarians’ “inferior” nature, on the perceived unique badness of the Bulgarian national character. I recently read an essay, in which my 17-year-old relative had perceptively captured this prevalent thinking: “you immediately shifted your focus to the negative traits of the Bulgarian, who has become a symbol of small-mindedness rather than national pride”.
In addition, we are too ready to dehumanise those who think differently to us, reducing them to an object, an “it”. Too frequently we conclude that someone is “not a person but an animal” just because they expressed a view different to ours. In reality, Bulgarians are neither better nor worse than any other nation in Europe. But we carry a unique historical and cultural heritage that has shaped our perception of who we are negatively.
Some Western writers, such as the New York Times and The Atlantic columnist David Brooks, have been much more generous to Bulgarians while acknowledging the context of our cultural heritage. In his latest book How to Know a Person, Brooks shares that between 1997 and 2002 diplomats to the UN in New York were exempt from paying parking fines. Diplomats from what he calls “low- corruption” cultures like Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the UK did not accrue a single parking ticket in five years, while diplomats from “high-corruption” cultures like Albania, Bulgaria, Chad, and Kuwait accrued over 100 parking tickets per diplomat. At this point every Bulgarian I know most certainly has attributed this frivolous behaviour to Bulgarians’ innately corrupt nature, but not Brooks. His explanation is tied to the relationship that the Bulgarian diplomats’ ancestors had developed with authority over centuries of oppression (first by the Ottomans, then by the Communists). He argues that such sustained oppression led to cultural openness to breaking rules because for centuries doing so equalled high morality and even survival. Diplomats whose ancestors lived in countries that enjoyed sustained sovereignty, on the other hand, did not break the rules because their ancestral harmonious existence had been dependent on following rather than breaking rules.
The questions we ask each other as people and the stories they unlock are one of our superpowers. Whenever we ask each other about our family or generational history, our fears, hopes and aspirations, I have no doubt that we will discover very swiftly that regardless of which side of a division faultline we stand on, we share a similar yearning to live in peace, to protect our children, to have a place we can call home, to love and be loved, to be healthy, to live long, prosper and grow our influence. Our polarisation is a result of the different paths we see to meeting our needs and wants. Being truly interested in one another is a route out of our political and ideological division. It takes curiosity, attention towards others and a few deep questions…

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