On writing letters

Michael Sommer, artistic director of Phone Home Germany, on electronic communication and the political discourse on the ‘refugee crisis’ in Germany.

Shortly after email was invented, two things became obvious: People would write considerably more often and more quickly to each other electronically than they had done on paper, and: Irony was a problem. Emotional ambivalence was a problem. Nuances of expression were a problem. If you’re going to write a personal letter, you put some energy into shaping language according to the relationship you’ve got to the recipient. In theory, you can similarly do that in an email, but, as it turned out, email was not the new letter, it was the new postcard. Ideal for short messages, for matter of fact business talk, but difficult when it came to the psychological fine tuning of communication. It is no wonder that emoticons were invented in order to give a crude hint at humour or other emotional qualities involved in electronic communication.

But although the smiley library of my mobile phone today has a vaster vocabulary than some right wing politicians do in their mother tongue, electronic communication still has a major problem: Electronic media dehumanise communication and, as a compensation, authors frequently overdose the emotional drive of their messages. This leads on the one hand to hour-long exchanges of text messages containing endless variations of colons, hyphens and brackets, and on the other hand to massive verbal abuse in social media, which, when they have gathered enough momentum, result in the new weather phenomenon of our time: shit storms.

EmoPersonally, I’ve never taken this to be a problem for society – sure, if a student gets bullied electronically by his or her fellows, if there’s sexual harassment via email or stalking via social media going on – those are grave incidents, but on a social scale, they are not dangerous, I thought. When the German chancellor decided to open the borders to those refugees, mainly from Syria, who suffered extremely from the undignified and unlawful treatment they received from the hands of the right wing Hungarian government in summer 2015, a process was initiated that not only changed the way Europe deals with the so called refugee crisis, it also significantly changed the political discourse in Germany. I don’t mean the fact that parties of the extreme right like the “Alternative fuer Deutschland” have in the last months developed a racist, xenophobic and militant vocabulary that was unheard of in Germany for decades, but another aspect: German society on the whole appears to become more political, in the sense that many who have never voiced their political opinion publicly, do so now. And they do so in social media. And do so in shrill slogans and will not shy away from personal insults to people they don’t even know, using a language that would cause physical violence committed by pacifists if it were used in real life rather than on Facebook.

Everybody I know has experienced in the last months that Facebook “friends” – and we all know what the word means in this context – cheerfully shared content of tendentious “reports” on crimes committed by asylum-seekers, revealing the “truth” that the “lying press” (a term that is championed by the right wing PEGIDA movement and applied generously to all public media, television, press etc.) was suppressing by decree of the chancellor. It is one thing to purge your “friends” list of people you do not value enough to enter into serious discussion with, but what if you are forced to do so either because it is someone you seriously consider to be a real life friend or because you are directly involved in the topic? I found myself in the latter situation in November for the first time, and I really hated it.

The impotent "Chorus of Firefighters" is condemned to watch Biedermann dig his own grave.
The impotent “Chorus of Firefighters”.

For my YouTube channel “Sommer’s World Literature To Go”* I produce a compact version of a work of world literature every week, summarising it with the help of Playmobil figures, which is generally met with enthusiasm by students being in an essay crisis or in the night before an exam. On the occasion of the 9th of November, however, I did a special edition of my videos, devoted to Max Frisch’s play BIEDERMANN UND DIE BRANDSTIFTER (THE FIRE RAISERS/THE ARSONISTS). The 9th of November is a threefold memorial day in Germany: In 1918, the Kaiser abdicated and the Republic was proclaimed; in 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened; but most significantly, in 1938, the National Socialists organised a massive pogrom against the Jewish German population, in the course of which hundreds of people were killed and thousands of synagogues were destroyed, many of them burned down. What the Nazi propaganda stylised as “Reichskristallnacht” (“Night of the Broken Glass”) was nothing but a publicly organised act of terror, murder and arson for racist reasons. When I summarised Frisch’s drama for my video, which, by the way, is an allegory on those who allow arsonists in their house, stand by while they do their dirty work and thus contribute to their own undoing, I drew attention to the fact that, as in 1938, right wing terror is spreading in Germany, that many refugee accommodations were being attacked, and that those who stood by and said nothing when right wing extremists marched and shouted did not deserve freedom.

Among the comments the video got was one that really got to me: “It’s bitter how Frisch is instrumentalised here in order to illustrate such a crude understanding of democracy.” In the exchange that followed, I was shocked to learn that this person (who I did not know and was obviously intelligent), systematically tried to make this issue – racist terror – a matter of the freedom of opinion. And this was not a shit storm, it was worse, because it appealed to the rules of the democracy in order to work against its basis – a tolerant, open society. I can hardly describe how much adrenaline was involved on my part when discussing with this user.

Since November, I have been involved in a number of discussions like these, all of them relating to one or the other of my videos, many of them on a much lower intellectual level, but every one shocking in a sense. Shocking, because xenophobic attitudes, right wing extremism have significantly grown in German society, to a level that must have been similarly high in the early nineties (which was was before my political consciousness set in). Certainly, xenophobic attitudes have always been there, but what’s new is that a social agreement on what is and what is not said or written has been revoked in the last months. Aggression is massive when it comes to the topic of refugees and migration, especially in the social media.

Maybe an inspiration to look on political arsonists with the eyes of a therapist: Dr Freud.
Maybe an inspiration to look on political arsonists with the eyes of a therapist: Dr Freud.

When I had some more unbidden comments under BIEDERMANN UND DIE BRANDSTIFTER in January, and was consequently involved in a frustrating debate with the author, who I tried to get down on the level of an objective discussion, I called for help on Facebook. And all of a sudden, I got into contact with another guy who I hadn’t known before, who encouraged me to not just finish the discussion, but go on to talk and try to find empathy for the people behind the aggressive words. Now this may seem a little therapeutic, but in essence, this therapy is what the new phenomenon in social communication needs. When extremists encourage people to radicalise their opinions, to sharpen words and weapons, we need to stand our common ground. We need to fight for unbiased discussions, for freedom of thought and expression, for tolerance and openness, even in the face of abuse and insinuation. The first thing we need for that is time. It’s difficult enough to explain an argument in a few sentences when you’re sitting next to each other, but it’s an art form if you’re trying to pack it into an electronic message. So, in order to avoid falling into the trap of extremism as well, we need to work against the trend – we need to write more letters. Not necessarily on paper, but we need to devote ourselves to what we write, and take time to do so. I hope this may serve as an excuse for the unusual length of this blog post. :-).

*Unfortunately, only very few of my videos are yet available in English, namely here.