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Ukraine war, COVID: How German society is divided

  • May 13, 2022

At the European Police Congress in Berlin, the topic of debate is “divided society,” and a politician, a psychologist, a police chief, and a digital expert sat down to discuss the issue. Four people, four opinions? Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Green Party and Vice President of the German Bundestag, kicks things off: “There’s no reason to talk about the division in society.”

Psychologist Ahmad Mansour disagrees: “We are a divided society.”

Göring-Eckardt insists that “the vast majority in our country still stands behind democracy.” But also acknowledges “very noisy groups” such as enemies of Ukraine, Putin-understanders, and COVID deniers have made their presence felt. The noise they make sometimes leads to “the talk of a divided society.” So things aren’t so bad? That’s not how the politician wants to be understood: Enemies of democracy must be watched very closely and punished if they become criminals.

Society is not divided, says Katrin Göring-Eckardt

Everyone agrees on that, but Mansour sees another problem: The defamation of dissenters has become such a common problem that one has to say: “Our society needs a massive basic course in discourse culture.” He believes there is a tolerance problem in how discussions are conducted. “That’s a very big danger to democracy,” he argues.

‘We are always the buffer stop’

Britta Zur, police chief of Gelsenkirchen, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, agrees with Göring-Eckhardt: “The majority in our society remains civil and does not violate any laws,” she says. But stresses that the police must be vigilant, which should include a transparent, open police force that makes it clear “that we have no place for extremists, either outside our organization or inside.”

Gelsenkirchen police chief Britta Zur believes in reaching out to people via social media

To live up to this claim as much as possible, the force that Britta Zur heads is very active on social media. But she has no illusions about the role of the police: “We are always the buffer for very, very many people who are insecure, who are dissatisfied, who have perhaps also started to radicalize.” Speaking for instance about protests against COVID measures, she says, “My colleagues are the ones who are on the street and have to deal with contrarians.”

The dispute over heavy weapons for Ukraine

Göring-Eckardt sees it similarly: COVID, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine — all of these put people “under insane stress.” But that’s not why she would say society is divided. In her role as a politician, she often sees herself in a dilemma: The expectation of having to react to everything very quickly means that background information and motives don’t play any role at first.

The discussion about military support for Ukraine is just such a case, especially from the Green Party’s perspective. Göring-Eckardt is in favor of the delivery of heavy weapons, but: “This is not an easy decision, but a very difficult one.” She says it was necessary to explain what arguments and facts had led to this decision.

‘Two hours on Twitter, that’s exhausting’

In this context, Göring-Eckardt is critical of communication via social media. “Two hours on Twitter, that’s already very exhausting.” What fake news can trigger, she said, is currently being experienced on a massive scale from the Russian side. “We are confronted with statements where “You can see at first glance that this is nonsense,” she says. But people don’t like to leave their bubbles.

Ahmad Mansour also advocates heavy weapons for Ukraine. “But I also have to put up with other people disagreeing with me.” He finds this ability lacking among many. The willingness to engage in dialogue decreases when it comes to issues such as refugees, integration, COVID or Russia, he says. The digital revolution has not “led to us becoming smarter.”

Why isn’t media literacy a school subject?

Mansour emphasizes that his aim is not to demonize social media. He has long wondered why media literacy is still not a central subject in schools. Even seven- and eight-year-olds are on the move on smartphones in social media and YouTube “and yet they are not able to distinguish between fake news and truth.” Britta Zur agrees, saying that young people need to be taught that there are many sources of information. “That’s a big task for all of us.”

Digitization expert and philosopher Nikolai Horn concludes that polarization is part of the “DNA of democracy,” he says. He is skeptical, however, about the increasing emotionalization, “where many people refuse to be convinced by a good argument.” But social media, he says, should not be made a scapegoat in the debate.

This text was originally written in German.

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