12 September

Normality shift

Normality is not a fixed concept, but is being altered faster than ever before by discussions, images, narratives, not least with the aid of social media. At present, we are experiencing in the discourse on refugees a discernible change in what is more

Normality shift

Normality is not a fixed concept, but is being altered faster than ever before by discussions, images, narratives, not least with the aid of social media. At present, we are experiencing in the discourse on refugees a discernible change in what is regarded as acceptable or perceived as normal. There is an observable normality shift in the east of Germany, in particular, which can be explained not least by an inadequate democratic infrastructure due to boundary reforms, an already-existent reservoir of prejudices, a failure to adequately come to terms with the National Socialist past, and loss of previous certainties or perceived status following German reunification. What’s toxic about a normality shift is that it becomes recognizable only in comparison with other times and places, and the relevant coverage is often described as an attempt to discredit the community involved. This is why a potent alliance of protagonists from inside and outside the political spectrum is needed in order to generate public opprobrium for such anti-democratic developments and counter them.
In recent years, the same reports have steadily recurred: in an inner city, violence has erupted between refugees and Germans, which consequently triggered massive protests by right-wing-populist and extremist groups. These include, for example, the incidents in June 2018 in Cottbus or in August 2018 in Chemnitz. There had previously been reports of sometimes aggressive demonstrations against providing accommodation for refugees, e.g. in Heidenau during August 2015. The political mood seems to have heated up, and is ignited primarily by questions of whether and how we should be dealing with refugees, particularly when refugees have committed criminal offences. At this fissure in social cohesion, we are observing a change in what is viewed as acceptable or normal. The phenomenon is also described as a shift to the right in the public debate.

The banal-sounding conclusion to be drawn is that normality is not a fixed concept; it is altered by discussions, images, emotionalized statements and the absence of contradiction due to a reluctance to embrace the consensus based on fundamental humanist values. It follows that normality, and accordingly what is regarded as normal action, can be shifted by means of interpretative pressure, though this requires ostensible justificatory narratives. In the case of radical Salafists, the indignation is centered on the discrimination and oppression of Muslims in the world, and among right-wing populists on an allegedly lasting state of threat in public space due to (Muslim) immigrants. When a narrative of this kind is cited in the public debate, e.g. due to a collective shock like that after the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, an opinion hitherto perceived as extreme quickly becomes an accepted stance or at least one that is discussed and thus acceptable. This process is assisted by the informational self-empowerment provided by social media. Emotive, hate-filled messages are swiftly produced, and distributed thousands of times over in real-time. In the wake of ostensibly open discussions, normality shifts, as does the evaluation of actions. There is no longer any contradiction voiced when hate speech is directed against Muslims or immigrants, violent words, like “knife-wielding welfare parasites” (Dr. Weidel in the Bundestag on male refugees) or “How-to-fuck instructional TV” (Herr Lehmann in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament on a program broadcast by the Children’s Channel), are adopted in the political discourse in order to discredit particular groupings (e.g. refugees) or social movements (e.g. feminism).

The normality-changing power of uncontradicted words means that it becomes more acceptable to commit exclusionary actions too, whether through minor gestures in everyday life, the reproduction of exclusionary formulations, or even violence towards specific groups, such as refugees. It is the consequence of a degradation that does not function beyond the discursive fields. As developments have shown, refugees are increasingly and already relatively well integrated into the labor market, immigrants who have been living in Germany for a lengthy period exhibit a progressively higher level of social mobility and are formulating aspirations to co-shape the society around them. Hopeful as this development towards an integrative nation may be, it is disparately distributed in Germany. It is accurate for cities like Frankfurt a. M., Hamburg, Munich or Dortmund. In other regions, like the Ore Mountains or the Uckermark, this is not the case, not least since successful careers by immigrants have so far not been identified here, simply because there were hardly any immigrants. Moreover, particularly in the rural regions of eastern Germany, there are at least four factors that tend to facilitate a normality shift:
1. The curtailment of democratic infrastructure due to county boundary reforms, which is why council members or office-holders can no longer be personally contacted in everyday situations. Democracy is here no longer experientially present.
2. The election successes of the extreme right-wing NPD since reunification have created the preconditions enabling exclusionary narratives to take root in relatively broad sections of the populace. This means an already-existing reservoir of prejudices is available on which to build.
3. In the eastern states of reunited Germany, the 1969 movement was not manifested in the same way as in West Germany, so that coming to terms with the National Socialist past in the families (as a true achievement) and recognition of historical responsibility for the Holocaust were not accomplished to the same extent.
4. For many people, German reunification went hand in hand with the loss of previous certainties or perceived status, and an increased incidence of arbitrariness. Though an illegitimate totalitarian state collapsed without armed conflict, the same fundamental understanding of democracy did not take root immediately as it had done over decades in the nation’s western states. It was also impeded by the fact that “reconstruction helpers” from these western states occupied the crucial positions. This meant a democratic elite was very slow to develop. Even today, with the exception of the Chancellor, none of the federal cabinet’s members comes from the eastern states of reunited Germany. Though democratic infrastructures and procedures, like town halls, elections or changes of government, have become securely established, this does not yet mean that they are always imbued with a democratic mindset.

What’s toxic about a normality shift is that it becomes recognizable only in comparison with “back then” or other locations. In everyday life, the new normality is not discernible, and critical remarks about this phenomenon are perceived as a deliberate attempt to discredit the community involved. One example here is the town of Bautzen in Oberlausitz (Upper Lusatia), where the provision of housing for refugees met with sometimes aggressive protests and in September 2016 indeed led to disturbances in the town’s center, including refugees’ and their supporters’ being hounded by right-wing extremists. Bautzen thereupon made media headlines nationwide, and has since then repeatedly attracted prominent coverage, e.g. due to right-wing-extremist sponsors of football clubs or the direct election of an AfD member to the Bundestag. In August 2018, the “Oberlausitz Declaration 2018” was then formulated by a group that calls itself “the 89ers” and is partly composed of adherents to a right-wing-populist and irredentist milieu. This reads: “We demand an end to the negative depiction of our home Oberlausitz and its people by a minority. From the regional media, plus the public-sector broadcasters, in particular, we expect objective, non-evaluative reporting. The members of the county council, the district chief executive, and the representatives of Oberlausitz in the state and federal parliaments should enunciate an unequivocal stance here.” The key tenet of the statement, which ultimately signifies a restriction on freedom of opinion and of the press, is the perception that the town is being unfairly depicted as xenophobic and that there is no problem with right-wing extremism – and this despite extensive factual evidence to the contrary. Besides the electoral success of the AfD as the strongest party at the general election of 2017, Saxony’s security services, in their 2017 report, reveal that it was in Bautzen County, after the cities of Dresden and Leipzig, that the most cases of right-wing-extremist violence occurred throughout Saxony, including attacks on dissidents. Recognizing the new normality and at the same time opposing it is an effortful and protracted process, which can also go hand in hand with lost elections. In order to nonetheless lastingly counter the consequences of a normality shift, the support of protagonists from outside the political spectrum is also needed, like civil-societal organizations, independent academia and a free (local) press. They guarantee that exclusion becomes visible, relevant backgrounds are explained, and violence or anti-democratic actions are repeatedly made public and are met with the requisite opprobrium.

Dr. Sebastian Kurtenbach, FH Münster