I figured I'd start with a party I'd voted for in the past, a decision which has led me to a garden party on a warm late-summer evening in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. With a combination of nervousness and familiarity, a join the close to 30 young people mingling among the tomato beds. Many of them are in T-shirts, some are barefoot. Tofu and vegetable skewers sizzle on the grill, as they always do when the Berlin chapter of the Green Party’s youth wing gets together. I didn’t register for the event, but the Facebook invitation suggested it was open to all.
Everyone appears to know each other, and the conversations are relaxed and friendly. The general atmosphere is so genial that I almost feel bad. After all, I didn’t come here tonight to have a nice conversation. I came to debate politics. The first person to meet my gaze is a young woman with blonde hair, her left foot in an orthopedic splint. She smiles at me. Oh, a reporter from DIE ZEIT, how nice, welcome, she says. Her name is Jana and she doesn’t seem to think twice about addressing me with the informal Du.
I ask about Jana’s foot. A stress fracture, she tells me, the result of wearing the wrong Birkenstocks. We laugh at the cliché, perhaps the most perfect one of all those surrounding us. I ask who the other people are at the event and Jana says most of them are from the Grüne Jugend, the party’s youth wing. The Jusos and the Solids, youth groups associated with the Social Democrats and the Left Party, respectively, were also invited. I ask about the Junge Union, the youth wing of the conservative Christian Democrats. Of course not, Jana replies. How about the Junge Alternative, the youth organization of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party? No, we don’t want anything to do with Nazis, Jana replies.
That was quick. I’ve only been here for two minutes and we're already on topic.
I explain to Jana that my editors have sent me on a political tour of Germany. My assignment is to determine where there’s a willingness to start a dialogue with one’s political adversaries and how much tolerance there is for the divergent opinions held by others.
How many members of the Junge Alternative did she talk to before she decided they were all Nazis, I ask. None, she says. Why? She knows the party platform. She’s listened to AfD speeches in parliament. It’s bad enough that they won seats in the last election, she says.
I too am unsettled by the right-wing populists’ assault on the liberal democratic order. But I’m also unsettled by something else. Namely, the sentence: "Talking to them is pointless!" It is one that can be heard on both the left and the right. And it represents a new kind of speechlessness that I find dangerous.
Is talking to one’s opponents really pointless? Or is it simply more comfortable to refrain from doing so?
It is a question that around 20,000 Germans have likewise been asking themselves. They are the ones who recently decided to find out for themselves. At the initiative of ZEIT ONLINE, they answered seven questions posted on the websites of participating media outlets. Should Germany control its borders more strictly? Should meat be taxed more heavily to reduce consumption? Should central city districts be car-free? Yes or no? Based on their answers, an algorithm produced thousands of pairs holding the most divergent views possible. On Sunday, they met up all around Germany. Migration advocates sat down with migration opponents. Vegetarians with carnivores. Drivers with cyclists. The campaign is called "Germany talks."
One thing that strikes me about Jana is how friendly she is to me, as if we’re allies. It's nice, of course. I recognize a certain "us versus them" tone in her voice, a common feature of discussions about the AfD. "It’s awful how many of them there now are." Such sentences come up frequently in such discussions and they serve as both a litmus test and consensus builder. Normally, I would reply with something like: "Yeah, it frightens me too." But this time, I’m here to argue, so instead I say there is one area in which the AfD has a point: Germany can’t take in everybody.
I have the impression that in the brief silence that follows, Jana flinches slightly. "What?"
Well, I say, the UN estimates that several million Africans could migrate to Europe in this century. Of course, that’s an estimate, and of course, not everyone wants to come to Germany, but shouldn’t we be prepared all the same? Would we be willing to accept, say, 200 million refugees?
Jana just stares at me.
One-hundred million? Fifty million?
Say stop, I tell Jana. I’m being deliberately provocative.
Twenty? Ten? Five?
I don’t know what the limit should be either, I say. No one can know for sure. We can only come to an agreement as a society. Shouldn't we do so?
Jana says she considers anyone who calls for an upper limit to be inhuman.
Did she just call nearly half of her fellow citizens inhuman, in the name of human rights? She falls silent. If one believes the polls, I say, around 50 percent of Germans support a cap on immigration. Then that's how it is, Jana says.
Jana is 22. Perhaps she is speaking out of the passion of youth. Or maybe it’s the same unwillingness to compromise that seems to have recently gripped our society?
Assuming I had labeled Muslims as terrorists, women as sluts or men as rapists, Jana would have been absolutely right to call foul. Those are despicable generalizations. But can you call every advocate of an immigration cap inhuman?
Psychologists have a word for denying another person’s humanity: dehumanization. Societies where the phenomenon is widespread generally have a problem. The ancient Greeks and their slaves, the Americans and the Indians, the Nazis and the Jews. Currently, Western societies are once again seeing a dangerous amount of dehumanization.
Those on the far-right dehumanize foreigners by talking about "breeding," as if they were animals.
Those on the left dehumanize those on the right by talking about "savages" and "bloodthirsty beasts."
Jana dehumanizes everyone in favor of capping immigration.