In recent times, conservative-leaning commentators in Germany have claimed that open debate is increasingly being stifled. They argue that we’re no longer permitted to openly discuss a whole host of taboo subjects and that freedom of speech is under attack.
But that’s not true. On the contrary, the rise and electoral success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party – which promotes economic liberalism and social conservatism, yet also panders to the far-right – means we now have a broad spectrum of opinions represented in public discourse.
The AfD gives a voice to those favouring free markets and traditional societal values, feeding these views into the political process and the media. The party’s rise began with its fierce criticism of the euro and political efforts to rescue the currency. Today, it holds seats in Germany’s national parliament, the Bundestag, and all 16 of Germany’s state-level legislatures. The AfD rejects a ban on old diesel cars and dismisses talk of global warming as “climate hysteria”.
No other political party in Germany propagates such views. And while surveys show that such views are shared only by a minority of Germans today, they certainly deserve their place in public discourse. It is thanks to the AfD that this is the case. The party has, therefore, broadened the scope of opinions present in public and political discourse today. Freedom of speech, in short, is thriving.
At the same time, there must be a limit to what we can consider acceptable opinions. Far-right figures in the AfD, after all, have been doing their utmost to normalise right-wing extremist views in recent years. Party co-leader Alexander Gauland, for example, downplayed Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust as a “speck of bird poop” in German history.
The leader of Thuringia’s AfD parliamentary group, Bjorn Hocke, dismissed Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame” and stoked racist prejudices when he described African asylum-seekers as inherently prone to procreate. AfD lawmaker Markus Frohnmaier, meanwhile, engaged in blatant xenophobic scaremongering when he proclaimed on Twitter that Germans had a duty to face down “lethal knife-wielding migrants”.
Statements like these trivialise Germany’s dark past and propagate racist sentiments. And they encourage anyone with a latent or firmly held far-right worldview to openly express it. This is a highly dangerous state of affairs and no longer has anything to do with a healthy, democratic exchange of diverse opinions.
That said, we could do with a more laid-back approach when it comes to opinions we personally disagree with – provided, of course, they don’t violate Germany’s constitution by, say, stoking xenophobia.
Silencing anyone whose views we disapprove of does not mean they will cease holding them. Doing so could even backfire, allowing them to cast themselves as a mistreated minority silenced by the mainstream. Instead, we should engage in rational, fact-based debate. And let the better argument win. DW