Counting on civil society

The topic of asylum occupies Germany. The social psychologist Harald Welzer on a debate that has changed the social climate.

Demonstration for the rescue at sea  of refugees
Demonstration for the rescue at sea of refugees dpa

Mr Welzer, you have praised the admission of a large number of refugees in 2015 and 2016 and the social engagement for those seeking protection as a “great moment of democracy”. In the meantime, however, there has been a fierce asylum debate, which has led to serious political upheavals.
Unfortunately, after 2015, there has been a failure to support systematically the democratic commitment expressed in refugee aid. Instead, there’s been a constant focus on the complaint that there were too many refugees who constitute a danger to our country. So today we have a completely different situation.

Language is an essential factor of social change.

The social psychologist Harald Welzer

What led to this situation?
The policy was obviously driven by the right-wing populist AfD. At the same time there was almost an exclusive focus in the media and political debate – it was only about refugees and migration. That was the issue which people were faced with here over the past two and a half years, though there are actually a few other things that are important to this country. From a social-psychological point of view, one must unfortunately say that exactly this concentration on a single theme creates change. People perceive issues differently if they are communicated in the way the asylum issue is currently being communicated.

There has also been much criticism recently of the “poisoned language” that is used in the debate. Do you also see part of the problem here?
Language is an
essential factor of social change. All right-wing populists use the successful strategy of the expansion of the sayable. It’s bad when suddenly the limits of what can be said are exceeded even in the conventional camp, as with the term “asylum tourism”.

People are fighting against the criminalization of rescuers and helpers.

The social psychologist Harald Welzer

What gives you hope?
A few things. For a several weeks now there have been demonstrations in many German cities which insist that rescue at sea is a right. People are fighting against the criminalization of rescuers and helpers. Together with other organizations we’re now starting the “Not in my name” campaign. There are probably many people who disagree with the change of language and program, but who can’t be assigned to any party or organization.

So you’re counting on civil society?
Who else? Politics does what civil society dictates. The majority has been too quiet recently. The others are louder and have managed to suggest to politicians that their demands are the most important ones. Now the “good guys” have to get loud too.

Harald Welzer
Harald Welzer dpa

Harald Welzer is co-founder and director of Futurzwei - Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit (Future Perfect – Foundation for a Viable Future) and has a professorship for transformation design at the European University of Flensburg. Previously, he was director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Memory Research and head of various projects at the Institute of Cultural Studies in Essen (KWI).

Interview: Helen Sibum

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