Keep Calm in Dangerous Times

Earth exhausting out fumes against black background
Many have the sense that the world is changing much more rapidly than before. Photo: Getty Images
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    History shows that in response to times of great change, democracy and liberal systems are forced into retreat. The wish for predictability becomes so overpowering that autocratic governments are elected.

  • Facts


    • Worry over rapid change might also be due to the fact that the post-war order in Europe was very stable for more than a half-century.
    • Social networks and obscure news websites of all kinds amplify certain fears.
    • The refugee issue reveals Europe’s helplessness in preserving its perceived importance in a new, multipolar world, writes the author.
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Historical eras don’t always proceed at the same pace: Sometimes a lot happens quickly. Other times, very little changes for years.

Austrian pop singer Falco, for instance, once said that “whoever can remember the ‘80s didn’t experience them!” And certainly from a Western European and American point of view, most of that decade might seem forgettable.

By contrast, the preceding decade is remembered in Germany for momentous developments, including the student movement, terrorism, emerging environmentalism and nuclear energy protests.

It is the subtle transformation of social norms, expectations and language conventions that are most dangerous in times of accelerated change.

The end of 1980s, of course, brought the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, which ushered in the memorable 1990s and later saw Yugoslavia descend into war.

By the first decade of the new millennium the world seemed to go totally off the rails — with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change, digitalization and the financial crisis.

And now there’s the decline and threatened failure of the European project, the greatest flow of refugees since World War II and a reemergence of right-wing populism. Even veteran news pros say they have never before experienced such an accumulation of negative events.

This impression is reinforced by the internet and social media, which has resulted in a density of communication that simply didn’t exist before.

Worry over extreme, fast-paced change might also be due to the fact that the post-war order in Europe was very stable for more than a half-century. This long period of stability helped Germany emerge relatively unscathed and profitable following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Up until the financial crisis, at least, that stability held.

Viewed historically, 50, 60, let alone 70 years without war, systems collapse or revolution is quite an extraordinary length of time.

If you click on the short animation on YouTube, “Europe in the last 1,000 years,” you will get the dramatic impression that stability for human societies is the exception and not at all the rule.

Perhaps we only have the feeling that the world is falling apart today because of this exceptionally long phase of well-ordered prosperity. An average Chinese person who was born in the 1950s, for example, has experienced much more change than a West German born at the same time.

Only with this in mind can we put into context that a well-dressed man in his late 50s could, in all seriousness, tell a German TV interviewer at the German chancellery’s recent open house that he expected more leadership “in such difficult times as today.”

Difficult times? In a country in which peace, full employment and fiscal surplus prevail? In which people are mainly stressed by ordering something new from Amazon or Zalando and having to return it?

To his good fortune, the man has apparently never experienced what can seriously be described as “difficult” — which is why his despondent perception of reality can most likely be traced back to an unfortunate combination of saturation and hysteria created by the media.

In any case, there has been a lot of talk of fear in recent months. But it is difficult to sort out exactly how much fear is, in fact, circulating in the country, and what people are actually frightened about. Finally, how much of it is attributable to the perceived density and dynamics of change?

So let’s sort it out.

First, social networks and obscure news websites of all kinds work as an amplifier of selected fears — simply because level-headed people, in contrast to those in a permanent state of excitement, don’t feel the need to share with the world every alleged observation of any and everything, along with their own reaction to it.

This automatically results in a quantitative increase in the communication of hysteria. It used to be that society had something like 20 percent misanthropes who remained largely isolated. Today they are able to express themselves in such a way that they are noticed by 80 percent, and taken seriously by 50 percent —including 100 percent of the political elite and, as a collateral result, 100 percent of the established media.

This results in a virtually absurd overrepresentation of fear in a society where the vast majority, in truth, are doing so well that their biggest fear is getting too fat, too old or too unattractive.

Second, the speed of change is indeed really tremendous. In my opinion, the reason lies in two seemingly disconnected processes. The rise of countries such as China, America’s orientation toward the Asian region and the trend away from democracy in many countries have resulted in a geopolitical shifting of the world, so that its center is no longer in the West.

Hence the refugee issue reveals Europe’s helplessness in preserving its perceived importance in a new, multipolar world. And none of it gets any better with political leaders like French President François Hollande, former British Prime Minister David Cameron or European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, none of whom could manage running a real-life errand.

In other words, much is changing regarding the reliability of expectations in democracies. And when expectations diminish, fear and feelings of being overwhelmed step in.

Third, the speed of change in everyday life, brought about by smartphones and other technologies, is greater in magnitude and depth of penetration than all previous social transformations.

The shortening of the product cycle, as well as massive proliferation of information, news and personal messaging, occupy time and overwhelm the ability to pay attention.

The advent of so-called smart technologies in cars, homes, and offices is making habits and routines irrelevant. In addition, there is the threat of no longer having enough qualifications, resulting in lost jobs.

All of this, along with the personal scrutinizing and monitoring that accompanies digitalization, also ensures an uncertainty regarding what to expect.

But while all the smartness is considered to be socially desirable and worthwhile, no one is concerned about the cause of the latent fear to be identified there. So the perceived fear is shifted to other objects that are less smart and more open to attack —refugees, for example.

A key theory in social psychology is: “If men define situations as real, they have real consequences.” The perception of reality can be completely distorted — but what people do based on this perception nonetheless creates real issues.

Likewise, unfounded fears, perceived excessive demands and transferring of problems can also change a society. And it is particularly fatal when a policy of fear is the response to it, which is classically what right-wing populism deals in.

In this regard, the Christian Social Union — the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union — has been playing a catastrophic and amazingly dumb role when it comes to election tactics. The flipping of a social situation becomes apparent the moment when such a policy of fear is introduced into political parties that were not at all right-wing populists.

In point of fact, it is the subtle transformation of social norms, expectations and language conventions that are most dangerous in times of accelerated change.

History shows that in times of great change, democracy and liberal systems retreat. The wish for predictability becomes so overpowering that autocratic governments are elected.

We can see that in certain eras, such as between 1914 and 1933 in Germany and Europe. They often are characterized by a cascade of war, revolution, cultural fracturing, inflation, and world economic crises — some of which can also be seen today in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and, not least of all, in England and France as well. The pace of change is accelerating and the wish for liberty is diminishing.

In times of change without a given direction, bad political decisions can make things worse, as seen in the U.S. “war against terror,” for instance, with its disastrous consequences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The European Union’s refugee deal with Turkey could also prove to be a lastingly disastrous decision.

In the end, political activism is more inappropriate in such times than in calmer times — even when rattled politicians harbor the assumption that they are expected to do something.

Paradoxically, they would do better if they brought calm into play and only reacted when the smoke has more or less cleared. At least that’s what it says on all the warning signs: In case of fire, keep calm.


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