Trend data is fun. You can see a population’s thought evolving, and at the same time try to understand the reasons and develop your own perspective. I am privileged to be the country director for one of the world’s largest and most used survey projects: The World Values Survey and The European Values Survey. The data referenced below is available online.
In this column, I will present historic data on various fears we have had or are still experiencing. In particular, about the evolution of Georgians’ attitudes towards drug addicts, homosexuals, heavy drinkers, immigrant workers and Muslims.
Measuring homophobia in developed countries is important for many pragmatic reasons. In just one example, it can assist in Public Healthcare, since reduced stigma is associated with better health for certain groups of society. There are already some changes in this direction in Georgia: in civil society, the Ombudsman’s office as well as in the government and judiciary. Nevertheless, as in most areas, a young democracy needs lots of hard work to get rid of old Soviet or traditionalist habits and mindsets.
Based on a recent census survey, 38% of the Georgian Population is 40 years or older - the generation that was born in Soviet Georgia. Or as some of my European friends would call it: Georgia - the happiest of barracks in the Soviet camp! Many strange things were happening in these barracks. For example, unemployment and homosexuality were punished under criminal law. Consequently, stigmas against homosexuals were formed, and these opinions prevail today. In addition, today we have new circumstances which physically did not exist in our barracks such as intensified opinions based on religious views; for example, the public’s opinion of Muslims. Back then, they used to tell us that God did not exist, and they were either tearing down churches and mosques, or converting them for industrial purposes. There was no necessity for economic migration either since everyone had a job.
While the West was already reaping the seeds of the “sexual revolution”, in 1986, during the Leningrad-Boston “telemost” (TV Bridge or Space Bridge) a lady from the Soviet Union announced that “There was no sex in the Soviet Union.” The end of this message was not heard which was … “on the TV screen”. This makes sense, since content that is broadcast on TV teaches social behavior to society, and “No sex in Soviet Union on the TV Screen” helped compel a learned social behavior of being silent about sex in the Soviet Union.
Regarding drugs, I saw their significant effect on society only since 1991, after civil war tore the country’s institutions down and drug addiction turned into disaster, which took lives of several times more people, (through overdose and other related problems) than all armed conflicts combined after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hard drugs were not popular in my childhood, but cannabis was, and historically had an ancient culture and roots in Georgia.
Heavy drinkers – I will be subjective while discussing this topic. Just Kidding! The fact that Georgia is the homeland of wine was confirmed last year by a Professor of the University of Pennsylvania and his team. This was pleasant scientific news for us. We are Georgians, and therefore one of the world’s oldest winemakers. Obviously, as in every republic, there were cases of alcoholism in Georgia as well and we were consuming many alcoholic drinks. Heavy drinking though was something like a social sin, unacceptable and uncommon. It was ignoble to drawn one’s pain in alcohol, because pain would learn to swim. The heavy drinker’s social acceptability – that’s what would really sink.
One of the tested ways to measure homophobia is to assess the tolerance of a population towards various groups in society. Tolerance is the precondition for a harmonic and peaceful life of coexistence of different groups in a community and it is one of the key characteristics of an open society. “Who would you not like to have as neighbors” is a question that pollsters ask in surveys worldwide. Obviously, tolerance or homophobia cannot be wholly measured by one question, however this is a simplified way to see who the public identifies as undesirable neighbor.
Table 1 Would not like to have as neighbor (%)
As Table 1 Demonstrates, there has been a recent shift of opinion towards accepting drug addicts, homosexuals and heavy drinkers as neighbors. Since 2014, over only 4 years, around 24% more people do not report disapproval with having a neighbor that is a drug addict.
26 % more people do not disapprove of having a neighbor who is homosexual and 20% more people do not report having a problem with a neighbor who is a heavy drinker. This is an enormous downward trend for only 4 years. We have only a few measurable variables that show same variance over such a short time period, such as the decline in support for Georgia’s NATO membership compared to 2009, right after the war with Russia and the rise of trust in the church from 1990 to 1995, which were also double-digit changes.
Despite this positive trend, the latest survey also found that over the last few years, in parallel with a rapid increase in the number of immigrant workers and Muslims (from the middle east and other regional countries) in Georgia, attitudes towards them have worsened by 5 and 6 percent respectively.
Undoubtedly, we will be asking the same question during the coming years in order to have a better understanding of what has caused of such a major shift. In the meantime, I would argue that liberalization of some attitudes is a hard and continuous work of civil society, social influencers, and the provision and guarantee of freedoms by the government which includes abolishing the current draconian approach towards drug users. However, one thing is worth of mentioning here: the new young generation of Georgians who are so different, dynamic and demanding and truly deserve to live in a democratic country rather than in best barracks. And they will!