If the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has shown us non-Americans one thing, it is how divided the USA is as a country. Fundamental clashes between a pluralist, multi-cultural, well-educated elite and the white working class that struggles with the pressures put on them by globalization and that feels left behind have largely made this election result possible. This division, however, is not exclusive to the United States. Almost every country in the Western world seems to struggle with an ongoing social divide. Coming from Germany, to me this is most evident in the rise of xenophobic movements like the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” (PEGIDA), or the far right-wing, anti-establishment party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
It seems that over the last several years, we, as a global society have lost our ability to communicate with each other. Rather than entering dialogues about what is good for our citizens, we are so busy talking about each other that we lose the unifying focus of a public good. More often than not, the discussions we have about each other are filled with disdain and contempt, and overshadowed by a general unwillingness to accept and respect the other perspective.
Why is this the case? In my opinion, both the development of a more and more partisan, fragmented media sector, and the rise of social media have made it possible to surround ourselves with people that are like us. Evidence that distorts our point of view can easily be ignored or is just not brought up. We can create a sense of belonging to groups that consider themselves the “silent majority”, without ever having to face a reality check of this claim. This is fundamentally dangerous for a democracy, which lives off the constant involvement of and the permanent feedback from all parts of society.
I wish I had an easy solution on how to overcome this mutual silence, truth is I don’t. How to get into discussions with people whose views are contrary to everything I believe in? How to speak out against racism, sexism, and xenophobia without antagonizing those who argue that way? A first step must be to accept that the people protesting have actual fears. Although Sigmar Gabriel’s phrase “we have to take people’s concerns seriously”, which he uttered at one of the peaks of social unrest against refugees, tastes awfully close to populist sentiment, he is probably right. Globalization has created losers, whose losses are largely unaccounted for. The hard part is to find the fine line between accepting and tackling legitimate concerns (i.e. fear of unemployment, decreased welfare, and social marginalization), while standing ground against hate, racism, and xenophobia. Democracy is based in pluralism and mutual acceptance. Fighting each other in argument is vital, as long a common ground of respect and decency prevails. We must accept this challenge to save nothing less than the concept of an inclusive society in peace.