Where can I debate philosophy

False flag debate

There is a lot of discussion these days about the deficits of the culture of debate or even a supposed cancel culture is diagnosed. Usually this happens with the awareness that we are living in particularly polarized times. Or to put it the other way round: Often there is a nostalgic assumption that earlier, in the pre-digital era, social discourses would have been somehow much more conciliatory, fluffy and consensus-oriented. However, if you look into the past without glorifying it, it becomes clear that the political debates were usually at least just as dogged, and often even more militant. Which is hardly surprising in view of the fact that in the political arena of the post-war period communists met cold warriors of capitalism, old Nazis met remigrants, liberal believers in progress met ultra-conservative reactionaries.

In the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany there were therefore extremely controversial debates about German rearmament, community schools and the so-called “rioting riot”. As an example, it fits into the picture that the Bundestag member and former Nazi Wolfgang Hedler was unceremoniously beaten out of the Bonn parliament building in March 1950 after his anti-Semitic speech by Herbert Wehner and other SPD members. And in the decades that followed, there was no shortage of controversies that sometimes resulted in violent clashes: from the 1968 movement to anti-nuclear demonstrations to resistance to the census.

Accordingly, the old Federal Republic actually revealed itself to be a high-tension discursive area, also because the interdenominational dialogue was only in its infancy: An Evangelical-Catholic marriage sometimes still harbored the potential for scandal and the ideological discrepancies between social and Christian democracy were sometimes so great that their humorous stocktaking was carried out the TV series A heart and a soul From today's perspective, it looks like a confrontation between AfD and Green voters. And this polarization was also reflected in the intellectual enterprise. The recently deceased historian Axel Schildt said in his study published in 2020 Media intellectuals in the Federal Republic showed how nasty and unforgiving it was in the 1950s and 1960s in the struggle for philosophical interpretative sovereignty, the conservative philosopher Arnold Gehlen complained as early as 1969 about a supposedly rampant “hypermorality”. And as early as 1986, Ernst Nolte accused Jürgen Habermas of “exercising a special kind of censorship office” in the course of the “historians' dispute”.

Higher pressure to justify itself

So everything is the same as before? Of course not. Because as important as it is to dim the excitement about the supposedly irreconcilable discourse by taking a historically comparative view, the central differences are obvious. On the one hand, German society has become more plural and diverse. And that is what the philosopher Isolde Charim said in her book published in 2018 Me and the others executed does not just mean an expansion of the participants in the discourse. In other words: The effect of social pluralization is not “just” that, in addition to white, heterosexual men, women, migrants, homosexuals or trans people now also have audible voices in the public debate.

It also means that the mode of social change itself is changing. Because through the discursive becoming visible of a plural, multi-layered population, the concept of “normality” dissolves, so that things taken for granted disappear. And in everyday life that means that certain norms, practices and idioms require reasons. On the one hand for the individual himself. If a society becomes more diverse, for example in religious terms, the individual has to make more conscious decisions about his or her own belief (or non-belief). So you are no longer “automatically” Christian, but have to be much more aware of why you are not atheist, Muslim or Buddhist through the “competition” of other worldviews. At the same time, the obligation to give reasons to others also increases. If you use certain words that others perceive as discriminatory, it is no longer enough to simply point out that you have always said it that way. Of course, all of this does not mean that there are no longer any traditions or universally shared norms in pluralistic societies. There are. But they are under a higher pressure to justify themselves, which of course also goes hand in hand with a higher volume of debates.

In addition to this irreversible fact of social pluralization, there is a second major difference to previous decades. And that is of a technological nature. In the course of digitization, there has been an enormous structural change in the public sphere: Today it is primarily social networks such as Facebook and Twitter that are used for social debates. In principle, every new mass medium changes the structure of public discourse. That was already the case when the Gutenberg galaxy was formed. For example, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann remarked: “Much of the religious radicalization that ultimately led to denominational divisions is due to the printing press because it publicly consolidates positions that are difficult to take back once you are identified with them. "

Productive discourse workforce

What is specific about social networks is primarily that they are not just media, but actually metamedia: that is, platforms that in turn bring together other media (newspapers, radio and television stations, influencers and simple users) at least nominally on the same level. This is precisely why the famous dictum of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan applies to them, according to which the medium itself is always the message, but only to a limited extent. Due to the high degree of interactivity of Facebook, Twitter and Co., their effects on the individual depend heavily on how you use these platforms. For example, if you neatly curate your timeline along gardening and cooking recipe pages or block certain people and topics, you will not be able to see much of the dispute over pandemic management or immigration policy in your Facebook existence.

Nonetheless, social networks have of course changed the political discourse. If only because the main business interest of Facebook, Twitter and Co. is to encourage as many people as possible to communicate as much as possible in order to aggregate as much data as possible, which in turn can earn as much money as possible. If you involuntarily advance as a participant in debate on digital platforms to become an informal click worker in Silicon Valley corporations, the latter of course also know that it is above all controversial topics that increase the communicative productivity of the discourse workforce. As a result, tech companies algorithmically take to heart what (tabloid) journalism has known for a long time: Conflict clicks well.

For this very reason, however, it is not the much-cited filter bubbles as such that represent the problem. Especially since filter bubbles - possibly even much more hermetically - also appear in analogue circles of friends, in which one usually not only shares roughly the same attitudes or existing differences of opinion at least wadded with a large portion of hermeneutic benevolence, but the members usually also come from the same social class. The decisive feature of digital metamedia is rather that there is a permanent filter clash here, i.e. as part of a certain community you are constantly confronted with different opinions and attitudes, which in turn can lead to a hardening of your own bubble, so that one potentially becomes less permeable to other positions oneself.

Fight for residual cultural hegemony

In this respect, there is initially no question that the current culture of debate in social networks shows problematic tendencies in many respects: from the formation of ideological bubbles to a lack of tolerance for ambiguity to tangible hatspeech. But it is striking that the widely discussed cases of alleged cancel culture are almost exclusively about people in a comparatively elevated discourse position: for example, TV cabaret artists, actors or writers. And there is no question: of course, everyone has a right to be treated fairly. The fact that #SterbenMitStreeck was recently trending on Twitter because many users rejected the positions of the well-known virologist Hendrik Streeck is a completely unacceptable form of discussion about how to deal with the pandemic correctly.

The problem with the complaint about cancel culture is accordingly not to demand a fair, as non-polemical as possible and liberal form of the debate. The problem is that this lawsuit does not take itself seriously enough, as it often measures with double standards and thus sometimes even becomes a discursive sleight of hand. If one assumes a systematic character of exclusion, but then only discusses cases of prominent people whose careers have even received a boost in the face of excessive criticism, this is at least negligently, if not deliberately misleading.

If one really wanted to talk about systematic forms of discursive exclusion, one would also, and above all, have to talk about the hostility, despication, stalking, hatred and threats that are often on the digital agenda for women, migrants or minorities. One would not only have to talk about where it is required that someone should be removed from a discussion, but also about who is not invited to discussions at all, so that a handful of whites debate racism on a TV talk show, for example. One should also talk about the fact that the question of freedom of expression does not take place in a power-free space. If you do not do all this, but only speak outraged about cancel culture when a shitstorm overcomes prominent people, it is often not about freedom of expression, but about securing a certain form of residual cultural hegemony. In the cold conflict of interests of democracy that would even be legitimate, just not under a false flag. Otherwise it leads to such absurd arguments as those of Donald Trump's lawyers, who claimed in the course of his second impeachment that the proceedings were an "institutional cancel culture". The US journalist Kevin Fallon had the right answer on Twitter: "Accountability is not a cancel culture."