Most observers were optimistic. Multilateral cooperation, freedom and participation, the overcoming of autocratic systems and peaceful revolutions seemed to promise an irreversible trend towards democracy, solidarity and participation. All the greater is the disappointment, yes, the fear and horror now: not just about the fact that autocratic systems are renewing and stabilizing and that the usual suspects are calling for an open breach of law and that the human right to rights is denied to others. Rather, and much more alarming: Recently, we had to experience that European and American actors are openly attacking the foundations of our legal system and social order.

In the following considerations, I first turn to the threats to dialogic arguments through the perforating strategy of so-called populists, and then to explain how we can defend ourselves against them successfully.

Populists are attacking our free social order

Collaboration, dialogue and the ability to respond to the complex challenges of our globalized economy to find appropriate political and social responses no longer seem to be in high demand. Rather, populists call for special rights and privileges for some and the exclusion of people then defined as “others”. They refer to the self-invented and propagated narrative of the “one people” to which one belongs by birth or not. The denial of the right to rights for those who do not belong to it is discussed in two main lines: security and migration. On the one hand, it is deduced from the existence of a latent threat of terrorism. From here the arguments goes that the foundations of our legal system cannot be maintained for “security reasons”. These include such fundamental rights as the right to privacy or the right to freedom of expression. Surveillance and control should guarantee security but do so, as a rule, on the expense of our civil rights. Our freedom of movement has been restricted even in our self-satisfied Europe by pointing to migration and the declaration of an unspecific danger it poses to our community. The restriction of freedom of expression and the arbitrary detention of journalists and activists on the grounds that terrorist activities are prevented, is found not only in autocratic regimes. In Europe, too, there is a growing number of cases where the control of the security forces only reveals a frightening lack of justice among the actors by denying migrants their rights to justice. And everywhere there are voices seeking to lend these approaches their rationality and meaningfulness. Most noticeable in the way media’s are dealings with the Trumps, Erdoğan, Xis, Putins and Orbans of this world. By treating their utterances like normal news, they become part of a movement that no longer allows us to see what is happening. When people call for open breaches of the law, that’s just not “talking bold or plain text”, it’s just that: a call to break the law. Only gradually do the media understand what responsibility they have here.

Expression without the right to criticism

We have to experience amazing thinks. The reference to freedom of expression states that “one will be allowed to say so”, even if the statements are racist, inhuman and discriminatory. If you then qualify this statement as what they are, then it is said that this is a prohibition of speech and censorship. The open society, however, not only has the right to express its opinion freely, but also the right of all others to criticize this opinion. The claim that this would be a prohibition of speech, thus perforating our legal and social order. In open society there is just no right to an undisputed opinion. This is an essential feature of closed, autocratic systems. Thus, by claiming the values ​​of open society while denying the same rights to their critics, those who attack our order perforate freedom, democracy, and tolerance.

Recapture spaces

On the one hand our legal system is in danger of providing the framework for free people to participate in political, economic and social developments and to live the way they want to be self-determined. While the legal framework perforates, we increasingly lose the spaces in which an open, critical discourse becomes possible. The key challenge today, therefore, is to maintain our critique of the shortcomings, ambivalences, and inherent flaws of the political, social, and economic order while struggling to strengthen the order that creates the conditions for cooperation, diversity, and dialogical processes.

Pledge for the value of the dispute

Therefore, we must again and obviously now, under difficult conditions, make our plea for the value of fighting, arguing and searching for solutions even more effective. This does not seem to be easy in Germany. It is more than questionable whether there is any movement in Germany that wants to defend the open society. A movement is usually characterized by a network of groups and organizations, based on a collective identity, which ensures a certain continuity of the protest process and which links everything with the claim to shaping social change. (see Roth, Roland / Rucht, Dieter: The Social Movements in Germany since 1945, 2008). It is hard to identify such a movement in Germany.

Without dispute, no common solutions

The dispute does not have a good reputation. Dispute is considered something we should avoid as much as possible. When fighting, we think of people who do not listen to each other, we remember loud arguments, power and violence. But let’s take a closer look: we can win a lot of positive sides from disputes and conflicts. Whoever argues has a position, a perspective and wants to achieve something. He or she obviously is confronted with opposition and has to deal with this. Since there is obviously a lack of power to assert oneself alone, there is no way around this conflict. Law has the task of creating spaces for a civil and peaceful dispute. Only those who can express their opinion free of fear of repression and disadvantages will openly do so. But you also have to be able to enter the spaces that are created. This requires the will and the skills to dialogue.

Skills are needed

After all, even in a secure legal system, people need a variety of skills and abilities in order to deal constructively with conflicting opinions and views. Dialogical competences are required here – this includes the ability to perceive oneself and others, the ability to listen and the ability to adequately express one’s own perceptions. The ability to change perspectives and a certain empathy as well as the ability to perceive and articulate one’s own feelings. Last but not least, it also requires the intellectual ability to deal with logical-factual arguments. Dialogue requires the will and the ability to understand and to integrate knowledge and experience into the appropriate context. It takes a certain amount of flexibility in perception and thinking that keeps an eye on both the details and the big picture, the rational world as well as the emotional aspects. It requires the ability to be clear about one’s own motivations, values, and beliefs, and sufficient self-esteem to put them into disposition. In short, to wage arguments is demanding. Much more demanding than making orders in closed systems and obeying what you are told to do. Why should one face this effort?

What is the added value of dialogic confrontation?

We all know it. Many people see more than just one person. In a complex and dynamic world, no one can claim to know the truth. The future is uncertain and must and can be designed. Diversity helps to perceive differences; others see additional opportunities and risks. The broader the perception, the better one can communicate about one’s own expectations, values and beliefs, the better will be the decisions will be in the end. Because that’s what a dispute is all about: Something requires a decision. And if we want to make the best decision, we would do well to include as many different views, knowledge and experiences as possible. Ideally, therefore, a dialogical dispute creates an added value that none of the parties to the dispute could have produced alone.

What can we do?

The right to freedom of expression, the right to free movement, the right to privacy – they are all under the constant blow of persecution by populists. Our ancestors have won these rights over centuries and they are taking for granted by most of us, now. Civilization is a thin ice sheet that can break anytime. The good news is that none of the attacks on our civilization has remained without argument. Even better is that movements emerge, such as Europe (, or directly for the open society ( In addition to these positive protest movements, we must also invest massively in education and social participation. The ability to dialogue and to argue can and must be learned and practiced. This not only affects our education system, but also the whole area of “lifelong learning”.

Mediative competencies are part of the solution

It is clear that here at the Academy of Mediation ( we consider mediation as a building block of the solution.  The more people learn the ability to deal meditatively with conflicts and thus to lead constructive arguments, the more robust our open society will be able to develop. Complacency and the hope that others will judge that for us are not enough here. Everyone and everyone is called to work here. Who accepts the renewed negation of the open society, its legal system and its social ability for dialogical solutions, must not be surprised if dialogue, participation, tolerance and participation in our future will have no more space. Enough good reasons to get involved. The open society lives from participation. The open society lives from the fact that the people who want to live like this are actively involved, at work, in public space, during protests and demonstrations, in the media and politics. The open society is by nature never fully realized, but lives from becoming. We all have to be active for that. Then we will work together to create a future in which justice on a global scale may no longer be a utopia.

Thomas R. Henschel