Dare to Disagree!

“I have immense respect for everyone in this country who is taking to the streets in opposition to hate and incitement,” says CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in her exclusive essay for JVG. “Democracy cannot survive without committed democrats.” But, she argues, “I believe the greatest share of the duty and responsibility lies with our political leadership”…

Our republic is in turmoil. Hatred and incitement are not confined to social media. On the streets, we are witnessing incidents of incitement and abuse against people who are members of certain groups. Jewish restaurants are being vandalized, and Jews are being attacked. We are watching people performing the Nazi salute, hearing calls to violence and slogans reminiscent of the darkest moments of our history. Police officers are being attacked and our parliamentary inboxes are being flooded with mails and messages roiling with violent fantasies. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia have found their way directly into the German Bundestag and other parliamentary bodies.
All of this – and much more – is repulsive, offensive, and ignorant of the lessons of history. And all of this is quite rightly arousing indignation, refusal and resistance. We are hearing from all corners that it is time to take a stand. People are calling halt, calling foul, demanding that the offenders leave the field – signaling that xenophobia and anti-Semitism have no place in Germany. So far, so good. Who would disagree?

Entrusted with a mandate
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

There is no question: a free society based on the values of responsibility, respect and civility in our public interactions cannot remain silent and indifferent in the face of such debasement of our shared values. But I still have my doubts whether such calls for civic resistance are an adequate response. Particularly when some of these appeals are made in such a paternalistic and moralizing way. Here, I am also thinking of the demand that citizens should “ get out of their comfort zones.” Is this really all that political leadership has to offer us? After all, these leaders have all been entrusted with a mandate to undertake concrete political action. Now they appear to be shifting that responsibility to the citizenry and the broader public.
This is not an adequate response. In my view, our political leadership must issue a two-fold response. The first response is that of an assertive, effective and resolute constitutional state. When crimes are being committed, a calling for a “revolt of the righteous” – however laudable – is inadequate. We need a vigorous police force, public prosecutors who are committed to prompt investigation, and courts that will issue unambiguous verdicts. And these crimes are indeed wide-ranging – slander and defamation, performing the Nazi salute, vandalism, violence, disturbing the peace, calling for and threatening violence, Holocaust denial, incitement, coercion, and more. What is at stake is not simply our ideals of respectful and civil discourse and behavior; we must also ensure that our criminal justice system takes a very clear stand. A state that operates according to the principles of the rule of law must set limits and enforce them with vigor and impartiality.
To do that, however, we must assign adequate personnel and legal resources to the problem. Why, for example, do we not send additional public prosecutors to monitor certain demonstrations and rallies so that they can identify criminal activities as they are taking place, and initiate an appropriate police response? Such a direct and visible response on the part of our democratic state and its legal institutions would also help reassure our citizens that the state is willing and able to take action. But this also means that political leaders must ensure that our security forces are provided with the resources, staff, and equipment they need. We cannot allow our leaders to issue an appeal to civil society – and then fail to support our police forces and other institutions charged with maintaining security and the rule of law. The overriding principle is clear: any criminal offence will be met with a clear, unequivocal and firm response by the state and its legal authorities. And to be completely clear: this applies irrespective of the motives and the identity of the offender.

Target of defamation

Secondly, our political leaders must ensure that we cultivate and value the process of open, democratic debate. We must be able to tolerate differences of opinion and respectfully engage with people who do not agree with us. We must maintain civil discourse. And we must understand that compromise is essential to the maintenance of democracy in a free and open society. Democratic debate in Germany is foundering. The loudest voices today are the extremists, the dogmatists, the simplifiers: everyone in the state of Saxony is a Nazi; all asylum-seekers are criminals; anyone who speaks out against left-wing extremism is by definition an adherent of the far-right; anyone who does not repudiate all military responsibility is by definition a war-monger. Anyone who dissents or has a different opinion becomes the target of defamation or ridicule. Nuanced opinions are drowned out. Only the most simplistic and dogmatic opinions are heard. This has created a culture of debate in which hate, incitement, fundamentalism and extremism can flourish – on all ends of the political spectrum. Anyone who believes hate can be fought with hate has already lost, has already ceded the terms of the debate.
Our democracy – and especially its political leaders – must be willing to endure disagreement and engage with it in a respectful manner. We – all of us – must stop allowing ourselves to be drawn into this spiral of outrage. Democratic debate must be more than simply professions of outrage and indignation. Outrage is a dead-end; outrage is like a soft, warm blanket that allows me to withdraw into my safe, comfortable world view. Democratic debate forces me out of my comfort zone. Engaging with those who disagree with us is not always easy. But democratic debate requires that we address the questions and dilemmas of our day together. Democratic debate cannot be a one-way street.

Fact over emotion

The democratic center, its political leadership and institutions, must take up the mantle of responsibility. We are the ones who must lead by example. And that means valuing fact over emotion, and valuing nuance and complexity over simplistic sloganeering. It means showing respect for those who disagree with us, rather than shouting them down and defaming them. And sometimes it means taking the time to think and reflect. I refuse to lose faith in the importance of robust public debate. Democracy cannot function without it.
I have immense respect for everyone in this country who is taking a stand, who is taking to the streets in opposition to hate and incitement. They deserve our support – whether it be in the protest against right-wing extremism, the fight against anti-Semitism or homophobia, or the fight against left-wing extremist violence. Civic engagement is central to our democracy. Democracy cannot survive without committed democrats. However, in the final analysis, I believe that the greatest share of the duty and responsibility lies with our political leadership.

Photo Credit: 33834849300_c2f558f4d9_o / Tobias Nordhausen / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ JVG

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