Questioning the intelligence of anyone who criticizes coronavirus protection measures shows we haven't learned from the polarization of the past and shuts the door on any chance for dialogue, writes DW's Nemanja Rujevic.
Tracking down conspiracy theorists is a full-time job that demands constant attention in Germany. At the end of January, reporters from Bayerischer Rundfunk found what they were looking for: In his program, Christoph Süß dissected the alleged conspiracy theory that the virus, at that point still mainly located in Wuhan, China, and the surrounding area, was much worse than people in Germany wanted to admit at the time.
Süß described corresponding views as "collective hypochondria," "pandemic horror" and "paranoia." Furthermore, a German doctor was quoted who described the coronavirus as "not that dangerous" and that a bad flu epidemic two years earlier had been much worse.
Yesterday a conspiracy theory, today part of the mainstream
This is, clearly, no longer the case: What yesterday was considered a conspiracy theory has now become widely accepted fact. And the rhetorical shots fired by the Bayerischer Rundfunk presenter would classify him as a "conspiracy theorist" today.
And yet many journalists, analysts and politicians still have a need to put everyone who thinks differently into a clear-cut cubbyhole. Now reports call the growing protests against the coronavirus stay-at-home measures a gathering place for conspiracy theorists, right-wing extremists and — here's a new one — left-wing esotericists.
The left-leaning daily taz called the protests "a toxic mix." For other media outlets, it was the participation of "normal citizens" that made the mix toxic. And not much should be thought of "normal citizens" since, as one reporter recently put it, they tend to let themselves believe anything.
Does every demonstrator need to come with a disclaimer?
People have put up with so much over the last few weeks: Following stay-at-home orders and contact bans, trying to understand contradictory experts' opinions on face masks, doubling time and reproduction rates, somehow managing to work from home and checks their children's schoolwork. Others were forced into a government-sponsored short-time scheme and sometimes into existential distress. And then when these very people want to express their displeasure, concern or skepticism, they are, at best, called perfectly normal citizens who let themselves be manipulated by "conspiracy theorists!"
Has it really come to the point where all critics and demonstrators need to hold up a disclaimer saying that they do not necessarily agree with everything that is said on stage? Shouldn't that be clear already?
Is all criticism forbidden because some of the critics suspect the coronavirus crisis was planned from the start and are only left deciding if the virus is a bioweapon created by China, the United States, or maybe even an attempt by Bill Gates to seize power?
Echos of the refugee crisis
A spiral of polarization looms ahead, as the website for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit accurately described: "A growing protest leads to added criticism and attention, which leads to even more protests."
There is something of déjà-vu about it: five years ago, the much-vaunted "welcome culture" still prevailed in Germany, and, in many opinion pieces, anyone who voiced reservations about German refugee policy was labeled a far-right radical. But ostracizing any form criticism was a spectacular failure: It developed into a tailwind for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany — a party that certainly gets the votes of many neo-Nazis and racists, but which would never have grown as big as it has without the excluded "perfectly normal citizen."
The crazy thing is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long since responded to the "concerns of the citizens" by signing a refugee agreement with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a more consistent deportation policy. But because she's never come out and said it, she has been allowed to keep the "Chancellor of the free world" laurel wreath given to her by Time Magazine.
Failing to learn from the past
It seems that little has been learned from the previous spiral of polarization as from previous pandemics. A democracy worthy of the name must be able to withstand controversial debates and protests without creating insurmountable rifts.
It is simply not enough to muzzle unwelcome criticism with derogative classifications such as "cesspool" or "conspiracy theory." The very people who consider themselves the champions of democracy should refrain from using such exclusionary labels.