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Opinion: Germany is forgetting how to have a rational debate

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
July 28, 2018

German footballer Mesut Özil has resigned from the national squad, citing racism. Now, the country is amid a heated debate that dangerously disregards the rules of civility, writes DW's editor-in-chief, Ines Pohl.

Mesut Özil
Image: Getty Images/Bongarts/A. Hassenstein

Initially, Turkish-German footballer Mesut Özil's photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan merely caused some slight irritation. Indeed, it was an issue that, quite honestly, paled in comparison with other problems besetting the world. Özil's picture, which made the rounds on the internet, could have sparked an interesting debate on what kind of role an athlete who represents his or her country at a major sports competition plays in society. Or on how loyal such an athlete should be to that country. Or on the boundaries between a public role and the private sphere. Or, of course, on why politicians are allowed to pose with despots without fearing rebuke, while national athletes are not.  

All of these are very interesting questions, which were discussed rather productively prior to the start of the football World Cup tournament. But then, when the German football team crashed out of the tournament in the group phase, the country revealed its dark side.

Özil made a scapegoat

Now, Mesut Özil was suddenly made a scapegoat for the catastrophic failure of the German football squad. The public zeroed in on him without mercy. Racist slurs dominated the discourse. And rationally critiquing Özil's relationship with the divisive Turkish president became almost impossible. Much of the public debate suddenly centered on the alleged lack of patriotic loyalty displayed by people with "immigrant backgrounds." 

Germany, it seems, is losing its ability as a society to engage in rational dialogue and weigh one argument against the other. We are apparently forgetting the rules of civility that are needed if important political debates based on a fairly conducted exchange of arguments are to take place within a secure framework.

Read more: In his own words: Why Mesut Özil quit Germany

Power is everything

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl, DW's editor-in-chief

On social media and even in government, differing opinions are treated like irreconcilable questions of faith. Power, apparently, is everything. And counterarguments are not seen as contributions to the debate, but fiercely opposed as attacks.

It may sound obvious, but debates depend on people actually listening to each other. If societies are to progress, we need spaces where we can encounter each other with empathy, motivated by a desire to first try and understand each other and then possibly re-evaluate our own convictions. For a debate to produce fruitful results, those taking part must previously agree that arguments are what count and that cementing one's own preconceived opinions is not the point of the exercise.

A new zeitgeist

The heated public debate over Mesut Özil illustrates just how polarized Germany really is. And how great the threat is that here, too, as in so many other countries, the desire for a strong leader to take charge and snuff out dissenting opinions could end up dominating.

Many discussions on social media seem to indicate that such a terrible change in zeitgeist is underway.

It is up to each one of us to halt this trend by always critically reflecting on the way we ourselves engage in discussions. 

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Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl