Let’s talk, Pegida!

By Christopher Gohl19.01.2015Culture and Society, Europe

The flat condemnation of Pegida is hysterical. Modern democracy means dialogue.

What can be said about the Pegida protests (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) from a liberal perspective? On the one hand, those protests demonstrate xenophobia by evoking the alleged Islamization of Germany. On the other hand, freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly protect even illiberal nonsense. On the one hand, many of the protesters are obviously moved by fears and sorrows of a whole different kind, which could be addressed in a factual way. On the other hand, skilled agitators are purposefully adding fuel to the fire. On the one hand, Pegida is politicizing a religion: Islam. On the other hand, there is indeed a problem with a politically conceived Islam. And so on.

Liberals have traditionally believed that the pluralistic dispute of interests can be fought via citizens’ initiatives, unions, parties, and representative parliaments. At the marketplace of opinions, the majority prevails – but the process is slowed down by a constitutional state, which often waves the fundamental rights of a democratic ruling, in order to guarantee the right of minorities and aggrieved individuals to have their say. Applied to Pegid,a this would mean: Let them have their protests – but don’t let them get away with their illiberal attitude.

However, I think by doing so we miss the chance to strengthen and refine our democracy in face of European diversity. The Pegida protesters are also proof of the need for a debate that we in Germany have to lead openly and objectively: What do we expect from each other, living side by side – beyond abiding by the law? Who do we mean exactly when we say “we” – the “German people”, all the “citizens and inhabitants”, the “open society”, “the republic of opportunities”, or “the citizen republic Europe”? And how do we design a multifaceted Europa in which we are normally nevertheless more alien to each other than a party of Erasmus students wants us to believe? This is a debate which, in everyday life in Merkel’s Germany, only takes place in back rooms and on Sundays at St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt.

Collecting basin for losers of the open society

Among other things, I listened to the protesters in uncut NDR radio interviews recorded at Pegida protests on December 15th in Dresden, Saxony – very advisable and enlightening. Apparently, Pegida serves as a collecting basin for two groups of people. First, there are simple citizens who until now, according to themselves, believed in the German federal republican system. But at present, they see themselves as powerless and victimized, and they are taking to the streets for the first time in their federal republican lives, occasionally comparing their protests to those in the former GDR. They express diffuse concern with regard to the future, feelings of injustice, frustration and anger, often illustrated by everyday impressions. They talk about hard work and small pensions, politicians with false priorities, but also about Quran lectures and the crimes of organized mobs. Everybody joined the Pegida protests for a different reason.

These everyday experiences are then – not always, but often – interpreted with the vocabulary of fear of strangers, of anti-Americanism and even, in some cases, of anti-Semitism. All this is delivered in the language of the protester, of the democrat, fettered by lies, or of the loyal Christian or European patriot. Many place emphasis on not wanting to be called “Nazis”. Some of the protesters are obviously afraid to be misunderstood. For them, the protests are therefore a public community in which they can finally overcome their fears.

As a liberal, I often hear from people who consider themselves losers of the open society. I think that those protesters would find a home within a conservative CSU, within a national SPD, or even within an old FDP, nurturing a resentment against “the top brass” – in any case, within any party presenting itself as conservatively advocating for the “small people” and for “common sense”. Therefore, I respect the self-image of the protesters, even though I think it’s unenlightened: These are no Nazis.

Sovereign democracy lives on disagreement

But there are Nazis in the second group of people who want to capitalize on the frustrations of the first group. These are obviously experienced agitators who, by shouting “Lügenpresse” (a term used by the Nazis during the Third Reich for “lying press”) or “Lügenstaat” (“lying state”), are trying to turn existing anxieties into resentment and who are encouraging hate, agitation, and feelings of victimization.

The two groups should be distinguished from each other. The agitators deserve clear condemnation, but the ordinary protesters deserve a friendly yet decided objection; they deserve confident dialogue – why should they be left to the Nazis and their simple slogans?

For me, this is no tactical consideration but one with a modern understanding of a sovereign liberal democracy behind it. The human right to freedom of opinion exists for a reason – but there is no such right for your opinion to meet the acclaim of others. On the contrary: Our democracy thrives on disagreement – also precisely on subjective contradictions. Subjective contradiction is even supposed to organize itself: The civic rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of association encourage that. Nobody knows everything. But the objections of some coax the truth out of others. In the end, this makes democratic truths more modest as well as more resilient.

Dialogue is the source code of our free society

But only in the end. Until then, modern democracy means dialogue. For disagreement is only the beginning of dialogue. Dialogue means: Free and different yet equal people deal with their common problems. They agree on how the problem is seen by others. They deliberate on how to solve it. And they change the world by providing their part of the solution. Politics is the dialogic process by which we create the necessary conditions for living together. There is a dialogic attitude behind it: Those who engage in dialogue are acting beneficially towards others and towards their common world. This sounds trivial, but it is fundamental – and absolutely not easy. A fair dialogue requires mutual respect, partnership and openness for the issue. You have to learn this: Dialogue is a demanding civilizing technique. Actually, it is the most crucial one if our open society is to remain a free society, if we want to take a chance on Europe’s diversity or to minimize the risks of the global society.

An open society is always a diverse one and therefore affected by contradictions. It can only remain free if it treats its contradictions in a way that is beneficial for everyone – and that means making dialogue the source code of its operation system. Not only in politics, in parties, and in civic cooperation, but also in economics, science, and religion. And, as a matter of principle, not only when it appears seemly.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinion

From this point of view, the Pegida hype is a democratic tragedy – possibly even a low point in our political system. The hysteria starts with the protesters themselves. Once again: Everybody is entitled to their own opinion and to their own anxieties. But every fear, every opinion also has to pass muster through dialogue if it wants to be taken seriously in the long term. Not only because we could surprise some protesters that way or because we would definitely learn something new, but also because we should always resolve important questions concerning our living together and the organization of Europe by using reason publicly and not by publicly condemning what is just a dumbing down of society.

A serious dialogue would begin by listening to the protesters and gathering their requests for further examination. Parties could, for example, offer dialogue forums. First question: “What should we actually talk about?” Would it be as civilized as during an organized party convention? Of course not. But it would be a step away from the protests to the objectification of the debate.



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