After the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, many of you have contacted me to ask me if I was alright in Berlin and how I see the events, which was very attentive and sweet. Indeed, these attacks have contributed severely to a more aggressive debating style among the German citizens, which concerns me a deeply. Respect is eroding – respect towards politicians, respect towards citizens with different attitudes, respect towards peaceful immigrants and refugees. I still find it difficult to imagine the exact situation in Cologne, but although many pieces of the puzzle are missing, I feel like this might actually be one of the moments in history, where the future path of this country might be redirected as we speak. In the direct aftermath of the criminal acts, I see two aspects, which are both a challenge and a chance.
- Stricter laws and changing values – what do we want to be?
After more and more details are being published, there is evidence that some of the attackers were intoxicated refugees from Morocco, Algeria, Afghanistan and Syria. This is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for volunteers and supporters who believe that is the right thing to give shelter to desperate people. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of people believes that stricter immigration laws and harsher decisions towards deportation would be the solution. However, I suspect that stricter laws might poison the German integration processes and society even more. Here’s why:
The German law system is based on a particular, Lutheran-influenced set of norms and values. Humanistic assumptions are the pillars of what we define as right and wrong. In general, the belief of reintegration and the expectation that people can actually learn and change themselves are crucial for the way many laws have been designed. Additionally, the notion that all people are equal is secured yet in the very first paragraph of the Basic Law – human dignity shall be inviolable.
These are significant, since they have been developed after the Nazi regime as an antifascist vision in order to avoid the mistakes which enhanced crime based on racism.
Fear destroys freedom. Reacting with the will to tighten up laws might only be the first step of many to follow. It is striking how France and the UK have gradually limited civil rights by granting more rights to secret services and how many citizens agreed to such measures, without actually making them feel safer. It seems to me that the same things might happen in Germany along with a changed, negative and suspecting conception of man. While the benefit of the doubt used to be a predominant principle, not only in law but as well in society, a tendency towards scepticism, anger and the desire for punishment seems to emerge. But – in case the laws for asylum seekers will be changed – what if it doesn’t stop there? What if a hostile mentality will be cultivated questioning minorities and constantly fearing the abuse of the social system? Isn’t it right now important to tighten up the laws on sexual assualt? What if the idea to lend a helping hand to the ones in need becomes irrelevant?
In recent articles and refugees and migrants themselves have stated that, in their opinion, German law isn’t strict enough towards people who are coming to Germany and disrespecting the norms and customs. A Syrian refugee claimed it would be best to deport criminals immediately after proving their guilt, but the question is – do we want to be like that? Do we want to be such a society which is unforgiving and punishing? This is not about right or wrong – morals and ethics are flexible concepts and open to interpretation, therefore the answer to this is question is rather a matter of a decision based on a profound debate among citizens and politicians – and this debate is crucial. Suddenly, people who haven’t cared about politics or how the representative democratic system functions at all raise their voices and – sadly – find themselves in radical positions, both left and right wing. I am not scared of confrontation, I believe that the public sphere can survive struggle at ease, I prefer harsh discussions and solutions to long-term cracks of the societal foundations – the time is now to redefine who we want to be.
- Sexual assaults – acknowledging the violence
The attacks in Cologne are being highly politicizes and exploited by every type of media and political party – without any exception. Initiatives have been organized to differ between sexism and racism, breaking the link between religion and violence, while others attempt to blame Islam solely. Suddenly, it seems, every German has become a feminist for a different purpose, except for the cause itself – fighting against sexism and sexualized violence.
It is obvious how shallow the debate is – women are victimized, dichotomies between the German victim and the Muslim perpetrator are being constructed, blurring the debate about the blind spots which have always existed in this country. Too many women know what it’s like to be touched without their consent on their laps, butts or even breasts or have heard sexual comments in their work, school or club while these act are being portrayed as a joke or a compliment. However, I have the hope that with the high number of women who have instituted legal proceedings, more people might actually become interested in the dimensions of sexism.
It’s a common case to hear the following phrases as a woman when complaining about everyday sexism, silencing the ones who experienced an uncomfortable situation:
- You’re overreacting
- You’re being irrational/ too emotional
- Why are you so sensitive?
- You’re being hysterical
- You’re acting like a radical feminist
- He didn’t mean to upset you – it was just a compliment
- You’re being a bitch
Perhaps, when more people actually start to inform themselves about sexualized violence – since the occasion is given – these sentences might change and people might even ask “How do you feel about ….” In 2013, #aufschrei (outcry) was trending on social media, women reported about situations when they felt that a certain line has been crossed and yet, many people – both men and women – made fun of this. And still, for many feminism is linked to radical man-hating women who make a fuss about chivalry and too tight pants men wear. Even now in the light of the recent events, sexism is being brushed away – „you can’t compare such tiny acts to the violence in Cologne“, they say and I don’t. But I’d prefer real interest in the topic instead of short-term pity for the attacked women.
Nobody knows where to road leads us
I must be honest – for the very first time I have no idea where the road will lead us, I haven’t got the slightest clue. Germany doesn’t have a fragile society, on the contrary, but Germans aren’t good at arguing. In the past decade, a self-righteous and yet nihilist political attitude has been growing where compassion and solidarity matter less and less. Angela Merkel was the soothing key figure – the so-called “mother” – who assured that everything will be alright. In spite of difficult times, she calmed Germans down during the peaks of the European crisis but allowed patronizing opinions to develop – towards Greece for instance, and: towards Muslims. However, for years it seemed that many Germans don’t care about politics, as long as their own country would be doing well. But now? A country where more than five million Muslims live for several decades, realises the missed chances for integration. Politicians and journalists who fight against generalizations and perceiving all Muslims as suspects and a potential threat, are being mocked and called traitors. Mother Merkel, the chancellor who united the hopes of many people, might fall in the next elections and nobody knows which consequences this might have. The rise of populism? Most probably, yes. But what else? Who knows?