What is “German culture”? In this blog post Sophie Treu, graduate of MSc Social and Cultural Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, explains how conversations around culture happen and are ripe for differing opinion and even polarization.
In 2017, then German interior minister Thomas de Maizière defined a willingness to shake hands and an ear for Goethe as part of a catalogue which supposedly constitute what it means to be German. With his attempt at describing a so-called German Leitkultur he initiated a heated debate within the public and political realm. However, the debate rather than developing into a serious discussion remained relatively shallow. How come?
Leitkultur-debates: a neurotic squabble?
In 1998 the political scientist Bassam Tibi coined the term Leitkultur describing it as a European value-based consensus that aims to foster inclusive citizenships for everyone. In 2000, before its re-introduction by de Maizière, conservative politician Merz was the first to transform Tibi’s European Leitkultur into a German Leitkultur. In his interpretation, a dominant culture in Germany should encompass clearly identifiable values to which foreigners have to adhere. This positioning caused a tidal wave of conflicting responses across the political and public spectrum.
Almost two decades later, de Maizière initiated a second similarly polarised debate when he published his ten theses for a German Leitkultur. While conservatives claimed it was necessary to preserve German customs, leftists viewed Leitkultur as a hegemonic concept against minorities. Throughout both debates, Tibi repeatedly clarified that neither side understood what the term meant and called the debate a “neurotic squabble”.
The term Leitkultur hit a nerve in the German public sphere leading to highly controversial and polarized responses on both occasions. What communicative mechanisms caused the rigid character of these two debates? One way to approach this question is by making use of ideas from social representation theory (SRT).
Social representations enable individuals to make sense of and give meaning to the world. The stability of one’s own representations is ‘endangered’, however, when representational systems are exposed to each other in so-called knowledge encounters between two or more individuals.
According to Gillespie (2008), individuals can cope with encountering competing representations because they already hold alternative representations. These are characterised by a general shallowness, overemphasise stereotypes, and are evident when phrases like ‘they think/claim/say’ are used. These alternative representations, in turn, contain semantic barriers which can neutralise the transformative potential of other representations.
Neglection of the Communicational Potential
Applied to the dominant culture debate in Germany, SRT holds the potential to partly explain the quick and rigid polarization between the three parties involved: conservatives, leftist, and academia/Tibi (see graph 1 below). The dialoguers do not only have their own representation of what a German Leitkultur (object) supposedly means but also hold alternative representations (orange) of what ‘the others’ associate with the term.
Semantic barriers as part of the dialoguers’ alternative representations, e.g. polemic slogans used by all parties involved, protect and stabilize the actors’ identity and position. Throughout the debate several types of barriers become evident, some of which add to the existing list, such as turning the opponents’ statements into ridicule, including contradictory statements into the argument or accusing the opponents of being irrational. As a result, stereotypical perspective-taking increases and an utilisation of the communicative potential (grey) is prevented.
Speaking About Rather Than With One Another
What a German Leitkultur means and what can and cannot be communicated around it is shaped by the dialoguer’s perceived group membership, in this case identifying as left/liberal, conservative or academic. Communicative patterns fed by certain social representations ensure semantic dissociation.
Putting aside the question of whether Merz or de Maizière ever truly intended to initiate an honest debate in the first place or whether – in the context of German history or the complexity of culture in itself – such a debate is even appropriate, it is obvious that particular non-partisan communicative patterns were applied in these two debates. Rather than talking with each other, the public and political actors in 2000 and 2017 preferred to talk about each other, preventing a serious debate about what can, should or mustn’t be discussed when it comes to a ‘German culture’.
Connolly, K. (2017). Shake hands and read Goethe: attempt to define German values draws ire. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/837593/ahead-of-national-elections-germany-seeks-to-debate-its-core-culture-invoke-national-pride
de Maizière, T. (2017, April). “Wir sind nicht Burka”: Innenminister will deutsche Leitkultur. Der Gastbeitrag im Wortlaut. Zeit Online. Retrieved from https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-04/thomas-demaiziere-innenminister-leitkultur/seite-2
Duveen, G. (2001). Representations, Identities, Resistance. In G. Philogène & K. Deaux (Eds.), Representations of the Social Bridging Theoretical Traditions (pp. 257–270). Oxford: Blackwell.
Fulbrook, M. (1999). German National Identity after the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gillespie, A. (2008). Social representations, alternative representations and semantic barriers. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 38(4), 375–391. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5914.2008.00376.x
Howarth, C. (2011). Representations , identity and resistance in communication. In B. Franks, M. Bauer, & D. Hook (Eds.), The social psychology of communication (pp. 153–168). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jovchelovitch, S. (2007). Knowledge in Context – representations, community and culture. New York: Routledge.
Kronberger, N., & Wagner, W. (2007). Inviolable Versus Alterable Identities. In G. Moloney & I. Walker (Eds.), Social representations and identity: Content, process and power (pp. 177–196). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Manz, S. (2004). Constructing a Normative National Identity: The Leitkultur Debate in Germany, 2000/2001. Journal of
Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25(5–6), 481–496. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434630408668920
Priego-Hernández, J. (2011). Sexual and reproductive health among indigenous Mexican adolescents. London School of Economics and Political Science.
Tibi, B. (2017). Eine neurotische Nation. Retrieved from https://causa.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/was-ist-deutsch/eine-neurotische-nation.html
Image: by Roman Kraft via Unsplash