Let’s be honest, change is not all that it is always cracked up to be. While change for the overall society may be a generally wonderful, there are winners and losers. If you are on the “winning” side, then change is the best thing since the invention of sliced bread. You can see new horizons and prosperity for generations to come. If you are on the “losing” side, the picture is gloomier and change seems like a process of making your life irrelevant. If change were good for everyone, there would be less resistance to it.
Germany is a wonderful example of the challenges of transition. Twenty-five years ago, Germany was mostly a traditional, humble and wealthy West European state. In the last two decades, it has transformed into a united and self-confident, Central European, economic powerhouse. With this transformation came both the benefits and the headaches of sustained immigration, European leadership, and global financial and political responsibilities. However, the transformation has been disproportionate. In 2005 a Forsa poll indicated that 2/3 of all East Germans were unhappy with the German political system and the distribution of economic benefits. At that time East Germans sought to show their displeasure by consistently voting for the left wing party-Die Linke.
When I worked at the German parliament in the mid-2000s, I met a security guard who was earning five euros an hour. He was a trained East German mechanical specialist, a skill no longer needed in the new Germany. At 55 he had no career and no prospects. Yet he was too young to retire. He did not feel productive or part of the new Germany promised to him. He often told me he did not understand how rich the country was when he personally had a miserable existence. While he liked me as a person and was happy to be an acquaintance, he was not thrilled that so many foreigners were taking away jobs that could go to out of work Germans. He also did not believe that the government cared about people like him.
Like the security guard, many East Germans while happy (75%) about the end of Communism and reunification, they are not as thrilled about the way their futures have turned out. West Germans are even less convinced (48%) about reunification and can often be heard quietly complaining about the lack of gratitude for shouldered the economic and social burden of German integration. Recently the dissatisfaction has taken a new and disturbing turn to the right and has boiled over onto the streets. A right-wing party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained seats in several state legislatures in the East, and there is now a right-wing protest movement called “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA in German). Its name speaks for itself and it has 108,753 likes on Facebook, not a small number! PEGIDA organizes weekly protest marches on Mondays in Dresden under the motto “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the People), a reminder of the protest in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Last night 18,000 protesters took to the streets.
These protests have opened Pandora’s Box with every nutcase feeling he/she has the right to say and do anything, including verbally or physically attacking, foreigners, Muslims, and Jews on the street. If you are a foreigner in Germany, it is a little scary at the moment, not because of the fear of re-nazification because these protest can happen anywhere. However, one might be at the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in a terrible situation. Neo-Nazis have been emboldened to show themselves in supermarkets, malls, and public spaces. The government’s strategy has been weak at best and the situation has become polarized. The anti-PEGIDA movement has now organized and is gaining speed with marches around the country last night. In Cologne, 10,000 supporters of integration and diversity took to the streets.
Change is a messy business; it is full of uncertainty, risks, and potential dangers. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. Motivational psychologist and author of “Succeed” and “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently” says, “So change isn’t simply about embracing something unknown — it’s about giving up something old (and therefore good) for something new (and therefore not good).”
Embracing change is not only about having the foresight to try something new or to envision a world which is radically different. The success of social change comes from ensuring that no one is left behind on the journey of change. For this to happen, it needs to be sustainable, profitable, and visible at all levels. It cannot be a top-down approach alone. Like those companies who implement diversity management, social change needs a bottom-up approach to complement the top-down policies. This means operationally outreach to people in local organizations and communities who might not be vocal but may nonetheless be unhappy.
The problem is that fear of change acts as a barrier to engaging in meaningful dialogue. If we want change we are going to have to engage in a conversation about the quality of our relationships and ask ourselves how we can make change visible and beneficial to those who feel they are losing out. I argue that in today’s world you cannot just remove barriers you have to transform them into pathways.
PEGIDA in Dresden is at the moment a symptom of the problem and a barrier to integration and diversity in Germany. It is an attack on the very soul of Germany as a modern, democratic state. If we want to move forward with integration and diversity, we will need to find a way to communicate with those on the other side who might be attracted to PEGIDA because they do not feel their concerns are being heard.
- We need to create spaces for dialogue that allow people to air their concerns without being immediately labeled neo-Nazis or right-wing extremists. Make no mistake, I do not advocate speaking with PEGIDA representatives who are extreme. However, most people want to be understood and want to feel their future and their children’s future are safe.
- The government has to be out in front of this and not reactionary. It needs to address the social and economic concerns of the people. Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to lead, both in deeds and in words.
- It is up to those of us who support integration and diversity to address the deficiencies (and there are a few) and highlight the benefits (there are many) in ways that the average person on the street feels addressed. While most of us are afraid of Islamic extremists, anti-Islam is not the answer.
- The police need to do a better job of protecting foreigners and victims of right-wing extremists and prosecuting hate crimes. I often read and now of foreigners who are attacked and have a terrible experience with the police. I also rarely read about hate crimes being resolved.
I long for days, not so long ago when neo-Nazis and right-wing parties were so insignificant they were not even statistically relevant. By ignoring true social conservatives, we have created the opposite scenario. The challenge going forward is how to engage social conservatives without engaging neo-Nazis or latent fascist.