Fighting – for democracy’s sake
The “Deutschland spricht” (Germany Talks) project brings people with opposing political convictions to the table. Can discussion unite a society? For Zeit Online editor-in-chief and project co-initiator Jochen Wegner, the campaign was an experiment that garnered a great response.
By Viola Kiel
On a Sunday in June 2017, 1,200 people all over Germany got together in pairs to argue their side about how politics should be shaping the country and what values should count in society. A little over a year later, in September 2018, the same thing happened again, only with 8,000 participants this time. Each met to debate for a few hours with someone with opposing views. So what was the point?
The “Deutschland spricht” (Germany Talks) project, a brainchild of the Zeit Online editorial office, was a dispute incubator, a political tinderbox if you will. Interested parties applied and answered a number controversial yes-or-no questions, such as: “should Germany have stricter border controls?” and “should meat be taxed more heavily to reduce consumption?” Based on the answers and the postcode given, an algorithm linked people who lived fairly close to each other and held opposing views.
Can “isolated bubbles” find a common denominator?
Zeit Online editor-in-chief Jochen Wegner was one of the minds behind the project. The idea began taking shape in the run-up to the 2017 Bundestag elections. “We had several brainstorming sessions at which the US election, Brexit and the election in France were foremost in our minds. What seemed to unite these three events was that people had simply stopped talking to each other. They were living in their own little bubbles.” The first version of “Deutschland spricht” was an attempt to jump-start discourse in Germany again.
Zeit Online Editor-in-Chief Jochen Wegner was one of the minds behind the project “Deutschland spricht”. | Photo: © picture alliance/Britta Pedersen/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB Wegner took part in 2017, meeting up with a young man from his Berlin neighbourhood. He remembers the encounter as “a good political conversation with a really pleasant neighbour.” Afterwards, Wegner did a bit of research and discovered that his conversational partner had a neo-Nazi past - information that really got him thinking. “Here was a highly intelligent, friendly person. I thought he had a few odd views, but not too far out there. It has really had a lasting impact on me, and changed my image of the people I usually prefer not to talk to.”
The divide is not all that wide
When “Deutschland spricht” participants later told editorial staff about their interactions, they often expressed surprise that the divides were not as wide as expected. In person, they said, it was easier to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings. This is the best possible result in Wegner’s eyes: “We always hope against hope that people with very different opinions can still find a way to talk to one another.” Still, Wegner finds it unlikely that the campaign fulfilled a social purpose: “I think it would be a huge mistake to say we were trying to repair society.” He views the project more as a work of art: “It speaks for itself. The raison d'être is based on the fact that it worked: just bringing two people with opposing views together in person and getting them to talk to each other for a few hours meant it completely fulfilled its purpose. I don't want us to overload it with hopes and visions.”
“Deutschland spricht” was awarded the 2018 Grimme Online Award. According to the jury, Zeit Online ventured “beyond the boundaries of journalism right into the heart of society.” They lauded the project for counteracting polarization, promoting mutual respect for political opponents and thus serving “democracy in the best sense.”
This approach to promoting political exchange was not only well-received in Germany. In cooperation with media partners from Italy, Austria, Norway, Canada and Denmark, Zeit Online has developed the “My Country Talks” software. The program makes it possible to organize similar campaigns in every city and country. And debate is ramping up, as political encounters have either taken place or are in planning in Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Argentina and Alaska.
“Would you like to meet up with a European for a debate?”
It is interesting to explore why the resonance, why the desire to talk to one another, was so intense. The participant data set reveals one possible reason: around 60 percent of the people who registered for “Deutschland spricht” in 2018 were from large cities, and just 14 percent lived in rural areas. Socially homogeneous neighbourhoods tend to form in cities in particular, leaving de facto no dissenters.
Jochen Wegner suggests another factor he considers key – “the institutions that make discourse across certain barriers possible are shrinking and disappearing: sports clubs, churches, political parties. These institutions reflect a certain amount of diversity, and they are growing smaller instead of larger. Nothing has yet stepped in to take their place.” The internet, he argues, is no substitute: “We like to think of the internet as a place everyone can meet and carry on conversations. But that is often not the case. More often than not, we end up screaming at each other or looking to the like-minded to confirm our opinions.”
Entering into offline discourse with people we disagree with means leaving our comfort zone. Still, respectful debate between two opposing minds can be a valuable contribution to more cohesion and an attempt to “take a dialogue beyond the divisive.” These were the sentiments expressed by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the patron of the “Deutschland spricht” project. So in October 2019, debate will resume in Germany. And there might even be a European edition before that, Wegner says: “We also planned a campaign in Europe in the run-up to the May European elections. Again, our goal is not to save Europe somehow. But if you’d like to meet up with a European for a debate, that would be great.”