“Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.” – This is the fundamental conflict between the open society and its enemies, expressed in one sentence. It wasn’t a politician or a religious leader who said this, but someone whose profession it is to place a huge question mark on our assumptions and beliefs: comedian Russell Brand.
We are witnessing an attack by the pre-scientific world on the achievements of Enlightenment. It is not a coincidence that Islamists, Pegida and the followers of ‘holy Russia’ so often use personal insults and slander in discussions. Their style of debate is key to their attack.
Three letters and a punctuation mark have set mankind free. A single question was foremost banned throughout the Dark Ages: W-h-y?
Enlightenment replaced blind faith and celebrated the coronation of doubt. From then on every thesis needed an argument; every claim demanded proof.
If you cannot convince me, then our conversation is over. Hegel’s Weltgeist stands sulking in the corner, while humans try a thousand new ideas, make mistakes, fail and start from the top. Piece by piece they create a better world. Through trial and error. Until one day the Wright brothers gave mankind wings. Where angels sang in heavenly spheres, now passengers fidget uncomfortably in seats that are much too narrow. Where holy tranquility ruled, tiny loudspeakers announce flight information and updates.
We won heaven. Not through faith, but by obstinately insisting on rational argument and transparent justifications. A differentiated view on issues and attention to detail made us rich. If you believe ‘heaven’ is too strong a word for the Western world – look around more closely. Even people who live off social benefits in Europe are wealthier than 85% of the world’s population. We have every reason to be grateful for Enlightenment.
Those who want to destroy the open society have to attack its core: differentiated opinions and arguments based on fact.
This is why the enemies of the open society never agree to a fact based discussion. This is why they love hysterical tones, exaggerated claims and insulting those who disagree with them. All these dishonest methods of political debate spoil the foundation of the open society: the insight that knowledge is provisional and claims must be justified by facts.
This is obvious where government propaganda aims to destroy the open society. Russia Today and Sputnik don’t care that no one believes their lies. Their strategic goal is to destroy faith in any real insight, to the point where “Why bother to study sources? It’s all lies anyway…” becomes the mantra.
“Lügenpresse!” (Liars press), Pegida screams in Dresden. Not (only) because right wing misanthropes aren’t capable of having a real argument. A discussion based on arguments and insight would run contrary to their strategy. The ‘movement’ doesn’t want to tackle topics, it wants to create a different world. A world where you don’t have to deal with tiring, complex questions, but a world where topics are obvious and everybody knows their place (and stays there); a world without inconvenient, strenuous doubts.
This unites ‘patriotic Europeans’ with fans of Putin’s ‘holy Russia’, communists and religious fanatics – be they Salafists or zealous Christians. Their opening line might be different, yet the objective is always the same: the return to feudal lords and peasants; the return to superstition instead of scientific discovery.
No matter what they call themselves: the servants of the Dark Ages all use the same method: they incite hysterical doomsday fears and refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion. If you disprove their claims, then they reinvent themselves as ‘victims’. They steer every discussion towards an emotional, personal level, and towards insult and personal slander.
If they achieve this goal then it doesn’t matter if they win the actual discussion; critical thinking and fact based hypotheses will have already lost. And a few more clouds make their way between us and the sun of Enlightenment.
“The totalitarian revolution against civilisation is as old as civilisation itself”, wrote Karl Popper to his friend Ernst Gombrich. Today these forces are loose again. It is our duty to defend civilisation against barbarism.
The best way to defend the open society is to insist on meaningful discussion and reject every claim that is not based on actual argument. This can be a lot of fun, actually.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to debate a party official from Pro NRW – a far right party here in Germany. Instead of criticising him for his daft slogans, I decided on a different approach: I peppered him with questions on details.
How exactly did he want to send 12 million foreigners ‘home’? What about those who were born in Germany and hold a German passport? How did he propose to pay for the pensions of the baby boomer generation without millions of foreigners in our workforce? How exactly would he secure care for another 1.8 million retirees in need of assistance over the next ten years?
No one had ever asked him to provide actual, detailed proposals. He couldn’t answer a single question and after two or three minutes it became obvious: right wing extremists are braggarts without solutions. That was fun and it showed that our world is too complex for the simplistic generalisation into feudal lords and serfs.
The second method requires more work, but is very important: we need to insist on a certain discussion culture. When people start with unfounded claims, then we need to insist that they prove their point with a valid argument. When foolish people start making personal attacks then we need to speak up against them. And if the enemies of the open society cross the line into hate speech and slander, then we must be prepared to file criminal charges.
We clean our teeth every day. We need to take care of our discussion culture as well. An open discussion is the necessary condition for the open society. Lack of care will lead to bad breath.
Hate speech, personal insults and slander are all illegal in Germany. I started to file criminal charges in every single case that I witness. Online or offline. Because every time we let such attacks change the way we interact in our society, we slide a further step away from the open society and towards totalitarianism.
The absolute certainty of religion and ideology may be intoxicating – but I believe we can reach ‘heaven’ via another ‘trinity’: arguments based on fact, open discussion, and trial and error.
This approach also seems to guide Russell Brand’s life: “I believe in eternal love. I just find it faster if I always audition two girls at a time.”
This text was originally published on Christmas Eve 2016. Do you remember how “sane” the world still looked back then?