Angela Merkel on 25 March 2021 in the German Bundestag | Bild: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The fear of one's own error

The vigour and harshness in the exclusion of critical voices continues to irritate and can hardly be explained by mere facts. It should be possible to discuss opinions, facts and their interpretation. Why is this not possible in the Corona crisis? It seems as if, beyond politics and rationality, another motivation is at work.

PAUL SCHREYER, 11. April 2021, 0 Kommentare

Note: This article ist also available in German.

A year ago, at the beginning of the crisis, it was easy to argue that most politicians and journalists were honestly warning about the viral threat and were actually concerned about the stability of the healthcare system. However, with the rigorous and permanent blocking and defaming of all critics, this justification became brittle. After all, why was and is it not possible to talk to each other? Where does the absolute will to avoid controversial debate and the strict refusal to question existing assumptions come from? Why, in one word, the implacability?

The frustration about this has been great for a long time. There have been many explanation attempts, including appeals to journalists to report in a more diverse way and to listen to and give air time to those experts who disagree with the government's line. However, the appeals go unheeded – practically nothing changes.

Some say it's because of a too close proximity to the government, others point to a socially very homogeneous journalistic field, i.e., a strong similarity of most journalists in origin, milieu and political views. There is good evidence for both. Even before the Corona crisis, author Marcus Klöckner pointed out in his 2019 book „Sabotierte Wirklichkeit“ (Sabotaged Reality) that criticism of the media must go beyond these arguments and not ignore real power struggles:

"It's about the dominance in the creation of reality by the media. It would be naive to assume that cleanly presented solutions could change anything. As written at the beginning: From the point of view of the dominant actors, there isn't even a problem – except that there are these 'whackos'. There it is, the social struggle. And this struggle is being pursued with great ferocity. (...) Let's not fool ourselves: The decision-makers in the media are well aware of the situation. They see how they´re losing influence. These are all smart people. But at this level of the social struggle, they don't want to lose or give up."

A text, mind you, from the year 2019. Psychology might also play a role, or more precisely: the problem of justifying one's own actions to oneself. By its very nature, this area of the individual's inner life is largely closed to outside observation. Therefore, the following observations are speculative and cannot be proven. However, they seem evident.

It is a well-known fact that not every human being is fully aware of the reasons for his actions. One tends to ascribe to oneself motives that are highly regarded socially – even if, deep down, one is actually driven by something else. The radical nature, even brutality, of the medias and politics way of dealing with critics of the government's decisions gives room to the assumption that perhaps not only the openly presented rational motives are at work here, but that fear also plays a role.

The thesis put forward in this text is that the hatred towards the „Querdenker“ (a name under which a big part of Germanys anti-lockdown protest movement came together in 2020, which implies out of the box thinking) – and towards "unconventional thinking" in general – is fed not only by outrage at their assumed irresponsibility, but also by the fear of one's own error. This fear, should it actually exist, is likely to elude self-awareness, with only rare exceptions. Rather, it smolders in the background, as a dull hunch for which there are hardly any words.

One's own error has become unacceptable in a strange way and is considered downright unprofessional. One knows what's going on, is well informed, doesn't let oneself be fooled. Seen in this light, the fear of error in the Corona crisis appears to be only a special variety of a generally spreading harshness, irritability and refusal to debate, which can also be observed in many other areas. This general societal hyper-tension could be seen as the psychological equivalent of an economic system getting out of control, stretched to breaking point, and pulling ever more relentless and brutal at the nerves of all those caught up in it.

It can be assumed that in the Corona crisis the possibility of one's own error comes into particularly threatening proximity for a person whenever thousands or even tens of thousands of people publicly protest the government's decisions. To a self-critical person capable of reflection, the question then opens up as to whether these protesters might have reasonable arguments. The ability of journalists or politicians to allow this question within themselves, to be able to reflect on it, and thus to allow this fear of their own error to come to consciousness, is an essential key to overcoming the social divide.

"The other might be right"

The German Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), known for his phrase "The other might be right," quoted Hegel in an interview on his own 100th birthday: "An educated person is one who can follow the train of thought of the other." Educated is, according to Gadamer, who can "overcome one's self-absorbed attitude, so that one hears what the other wants to say." Today we mainly experience the opposite.

This is hardly surprising. Anyone who, on the basis of the official danger assessment, repeatedly declares for months that government critics are "lunatics" because they play down the danger, naturally has little inner motivation to critically examine this danger assessment and, if necessary, to revise it. After all, this is the basis of his or her devaluation and ostracization of others and – linked to this – his or her justification for the actions of the government which have caused suffering for millions of people. Therefore, not only is there no incentive to question, but, much more dramatically, there is an immense threat in questioning, since the admission of any error is now linked to the admission of complicity in the suffering of millions – an inconceivable burden.

The fear of this error and this burden will rarely become fully conscious. Every person will protect himself or herself from it as best he or she can, especially by systematically shielding his or her own point of view against uncertainty.

Today, large sections of the media, parliaments, public agencies, academia – and, unfortunately, the judiciary – find themselves in this dismal and seemingly hopeless situation. Seen in this light, the constant alarmism also appears to be a self-protection, as defense against the possibility of one's own error. One assures oneself again and again of the correctness of one's own warnings. Every study confirming this is widely reported, every study to the contrary is criticized as "downplaying the situation" or ignored.

Like the fact that the Helios consortium, one of the largest hospital groups in Germany with 89 clinics, publishes its Corona occupancy figures every day, which for months have not indicated a dramatic situation – and thus do not match the case figures of the Robert Koch Institute (the German agency for the surveillance and prevention of infectious diseases, equivalent to the United States CDC) – is consistently ignored (here the current data, as of April 10).

Both the media and politicians believe they are in a kind of war – against the virus, against dissidents – and consequently can only act according to a binary logic of war: Give up or escalate until the enemy is destroyed, until everyone has the same opinion and the possibility of one's own error has thus seemingly disappeared. One could argue that all those who do not want such an end should stop participating in this war as soon as possible – or, to stay with the metaphor: desert and stop working for these media networks and these governments.

It can also be done in smaller steps – for example, if more people in politics and the media allow themselves to at least consider the possibility of their own error – and thus also allow the fear of their own complicity as a deeply unsettling emotion in all its threateningness. That would be a path leading away from division, enabling dialogue across the divide – and thus also social peace.

Protagonists such as (in Germany) Merkel, Söder, Scholz and Wieler (head of the Robert Koch Institute) – in similar roles as Biden, Cuomo and Fauci in the U.S. – are now virtually closed to this path. But it is still open to many others who have exposed themselves less clearly.


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