How disagreeable opinions are discredited


Listen and debate more. (Image: Getty)

Listen and debate more. (Image: Getty)


Many people complain of prohibition and intellectual paralysis in Germany. The parties of the center have, however, adopted as the clock of the debate. So civil society has to help itself and make the media accountable.

Eric Gujer

Eric Gujer, Editor-in-Chief of the "Neue Zurcher Zeitung"

Eric Gujer, Editor-in-Chief of the "Neue Zurcher Zeitung"

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Science Minister Anja Karliczek of the CDU is concerned. "Right into the middle of society today there is the feeling that one should not say everything anymore," she confided to "Spiegel" recently. And the Federal Minister added: "We must be careful not to narrow the political discourse so that we lose part of society."

Amazed, one rubs one's eyes. Could it be that a CDU politician really said that? After all, the Union is not entirely guiltless of this condition.

At the height of the refugee crisis, editorial offices using the term "asylum tourism" received a call from a government agency asking them to stop using that word. What were such interventions, if not the governmental attempt to narrow the discourse?

It can not be what may not be

The term can be found in official EU documents, for example from the time of the last Luxembourg presidency, and also politicians of the Union described earlier with this metaphor the phenomenon that asylum seekers are registered against the Schengen rules in several states. The word is therefore, according to its origin, not a combat concept, and it also does not insinuate that the often very dangerous odyssey of an asylum seeker is as convenient as package tourism.

But in Germany, the word "asylum tourism" should obviously be banished from general usage.

After the assassination attempt on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz, various Union politicians, including then Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, declared that it was far too early to speak of an Islamist attack – even though the execution of the offense clearly spoke in favor of Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. The second appeasement that was often used by presenters of public service broadcasting was that respect for the victims forbids speculation about the facts of the crime. As if it were a mockery of the dead, asking who killed them.

Again, it was about discourse narrowing. Or as one would have said before such euphemisms became commonplace: it can not be what can not be. Of course, one year after the climax of the refugee crisis, the Federal Government had no interest in discussing the role of official migration policy in worsening the security situation. Better narrow the discourse a bit.

How to skillfully ignore important topics

For years, the CDU was even proud of how it managed in election campaigns, to keep out of the discussion unpopular facts. Their strategists invented the word "asymmetric demobilization". In vain did the Social Democrats complain about the talent with which Angela Merkel circumnavigated issues that burned voters' nails.

So where does the change of heart come from? Why is the Union now complaining about a state that it itself has caused?

It would be too flat to blame for the fact that rioters prevented Thomas de Maiziere from presenting his book. That alone would hardly bother the CDU. But now it seems that the sorcerer's apprentices are not releasing the ghosts they have called themselves.

According to an Allensbach survey, 78 percent of Germans are now cautious about comments on specific topics. Presumably, this discomfort over the limits of the word is one of the reasons why the long-time governing party CDU literally crashed in the state election in Thuringia and only came in third place behind the AfD.

In the long run opinions can not be suppressed

It is not without reason that voters think that in a democracy it is the right of citizens to say what they think is right – within the framework of applicable laws, of course. But why do so many people believe that this fundamental right in Germany is not worth much anymore? After all, with the Internet and social networks, the possibilities have multiplied thousands of times, his opinion unfiltered and at any time of day to tell, yes yell out. What used to be limited to the regulars' table can now be found throughout the world. More freedom of expression was never – at least from the technical conditions.

The GOttingen political scientist Franz Walter stated as early as 2002 that the popular parties were "deactivated, shut down, unable to campaign". They wanted to be pragmatic and non-ideological and lost the ability to argue about principled issues.

Merkel's "asymmetric demobilization", the attempt to shut down the public debate as much as possible, formed the climax of this slumber. But Merkel's opponents thought the same way. The programs of the parties differed only in details. The status quo appeared as the best of all worlds.

In the 2013 general election, for example, the voters found no serious party that would have been in favor of nuclear power, and for a resolute further development of the Hartz reforms, which would have called for an exit from the euro or a tougher course in the asylum policy, which was gradually being phased out. However, if such views remain unheard in the established parties, they seek new ways of articulation.

Without dispute there is no democracy

Then came the refugee crisis, which, as before, led to no other issue. The ability to deliver a result-oriented democratic dispute was urgently needed, but the middle parties were unable to do so. CDU and CSU got caught up in internal controversy and could not formulate a clear policy. Social Democrats and the Greens uncritically accepted Merkel's welcoming culture in a moment when many Germans demanded alternatives.

Because the parties of the center turned out to be the clock, extremists seized the debate. The center, which had been weaned from controversy, was speechless and lost its sense of interpretation, and the margins turned the debate into perpetual propaganda. The demobilized Republic became the hysterical republic. In this constellation lies the deeper reason for the contradiction that although freedom of expression is greater than ever, a majority obviously does not dare to voice its views.

But how does the center get the debate back? The parties are occupied with themselves and the AfD's defense. They are no longer intellectual centers of power but exhausted vehicles of majority acquisition. At present, civil society can only rely on itself. The citizens, who have gotten used to noncommittal political buzz, must learn again to bear a rougher tone. They must learn not to over-ventilate because of every populist provocation, but most of all: to think again in political alternatives and to demand them from the parties.

Media must promote open and respectful dialogue

The citizens alone can hardly do it, but they have a powerful mouthpiece – the media. These, however, are insufficiently suited to their task of reflecting the different views and even promoting controversial debates. At the height of the refugee crisis they turned into a spokesman for the government and remained deaf to the arguments of Merkel's critics.

Meanwhile, the diversity of published positions is wider again, but there is a tendency to delegitimize dissent. Instead of conducting an open debate, one searches convulsively for supposedly unacceptable words and explains them to contaminated fighting terms.

An example of this is climate policy, which has developed into the next major controversy after migration policy. The majority of researchers argue convincingly that climate change is man-made and therefore needs a decisive change of course. Nevertheless, it is sensible for the sake of democratic discourse not to suppress countervotes and not to stamp out every critic of the majority opinion as a "climate denier".

The media can represent enlightened scientific positions while promoting open and respectful dialogue. Otherwise it ends like in the migration question: Who believes that he finds in the established forums no response, looking for other platforms. Above all, the traditional media should not copy the hysterical tone of social networks. Joachim Gauck is quite right: "Some stunt in their reasoning ability, by limiting their thinking on Twitterformat."

The claim that there is no freedom of expression in Germany is nonsense. Nevertheless, the Germans should dare to expand the discourse again.

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