University of Freiburg: FRIAS Symposium- “More Courage!” in politics and science

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“The repeatedly proven and much lamented lack of courage of political stakeholders in German Corona policymaking” was the trigger for this symposium, explained Prof. Dr. Bernd Kortmann, Director of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) at the University of Freiburg. The pandemic, however, was only one example of the lack of action on the part of German politics in the face of pressing problems and deficits that have long been recognized. The same applies to climate policy and the necessary expansion and restructuring of infrastructure, for example in the areas of energy supply, digitization and transportation.

And in other areas of society, too, there is a “widespread despondency, risk aversion, conflict aversion and responsibility aversion,” for example out of fear of legal consequences or critical reactions, for example in social media. On the one hand, this is understandable, but on the other hand, it leads to a “communicative caution” that threatens to produce only innocuous empty phrases or to lead to complete silencing – with problematic consequences, for example, for the culture of debate between politics, science and society, but also within science.

According to Kortmann, the FRIAS event wanted to “counteract this with a counterpoint” by addressing the “controversial discussion of establishing a framework for a pathway toward more courageous decisions on all levels and toward a more courageous cooperation in social discourse.” The two-day symposium took place on June 23 and 24 at the University of Freiburg and addressed the foundations of courageous decisions in politics, society and science. It was also the farewell event of the current FRIAS board of directors. In addition to Kortmann as speaker, this board also includes Prof. Dr. Annegret Wilde, Director of Natural Sciences, and Prof. Dr. Günther Schulze, Director of Social Sciences.

Four major topics were discussed, one of them as part of the FRIAS event series “Freiburger Horizonte”.

Topic I: Courage, Despondency and the Crisis of Democracy
Introduction: Courage and Despondency
In his opening lecture, Prof. Dr. Günther Schulze analyzed the “half-hearted policymaking” using the example of the Corona pandemic. The professor of international economic policy at the University of Freiburg and FRIAS director of social sciences presented data indicating that more decisive action would have prevented deaths and also reduced social and economic costs, but decisions had been made “too late, too hesitantly and not with the necessary vigor.” This pattern can also be found in other issues, such as climate change, the digitalization of schools or the equipment of the German armed forces. Possible reasons for this are that the costs of decisions are incurred now, but the benefits are not felt until later, and that policymakers generally focus on avoiding risks and mistakes and are fixated on the status quo instead of looking at future challenges. What is needed, he said, is a clearer definition of the issues, a more rational discourse about them, and more courage.

Karl Popper and courage in the anthropocene
“I have an ambivalent relationship with courage,” confessed Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer, former German Environment Minister and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “In the German armed forces, it used to be said that the courage of the non-commissioned officer is ignorance of danger.” In contrast, he said, he relies on Karl Popper’s critical rationalism and the Latin motto “Sapere aude,” which became the motto of the Enlightenment in Immanuel Kant’s translation: “Have courage to use your own mind!” It can also take courage to pause and reflect when necessary. Especially since citizens must be involved. “Procrastination also has a democratic quality.” Human knowledge is always incomplete, which is why “error-friendly decisions” are needed, even if they don’t always seem courageous. Ultimately, however, taking responsibility for a decision without knowing exactly whether it is the right one is just as courageous.

Democracy kills?
He devotes himself to a “precipitous thesis,” says Prof. Dr. Uwe Wagschal, professor of comparative government at the University of Freiburg, in his lecture “Democracy kills?” Are democracies responsible for higher death rates in the Corona pandemic because of their more hesitant actions? The analysis of statistical data suggests that, globally, death rates are somewhat higher in democracies than in authoritarian-ruled states, he said. “But if you look at the numbers more closely, the more developed democracies do not show a significant increase in Corona deaths,” Wagschal said. In contrast, other factors such as the average age and wealth of a society have an influence, as do cultural factors: for example, a pronounced “masculine culture” correlates with a lower vaccination rate. The “leadership competence” of those in power also plays a role, Wagschal explained; increased investment in the healthcare system is particularly effective.

Courage and responsibility during crisis
Which roadblocks prevent us from acting quickly and courageously in the ecological crisis and from assuming “responsibility for the future,” even though it is actually clear what needs to happen? This was the question posed by Prof. Dr. Vera King, Professor of Sociology and Psychoanalytic Social Psychology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. She advocated an attitude of “generativity.” It is a matter of caring for one’s descendants in society as a whole, whereby the ambivalence must be endured, the limits of one’s own actions must be acknowledged and “responsibility for a future over which one cannot determine” must be assumed. Ignoring the crisis is just as destructive as imagining doomsday scenarios. It is necessary to counter the “present-oriented, egotistical optimization culture” with more courage for “courageous changes in the sense of a new enlightenment.”

Topic II: Research between Fear and Scientific Freedom
Science in times of Fake News, Wokeness and Cancel Culture
The second block on the topic of “Courage in Science” was opened by Prof. Dr. Richard Traunmüller, Professor of Empirical Democracy Research at the University of Mannheim, with the question: Is scientific freedom in danger? In doing so, Traunmüller emphasized how scientists’ self-censorship is detrimental to scientific discourse: “We then don’t see all perspectives, don’t hear all arguments, and that gives a distorted picture of collective knowledge and expertise.” Traunmüller enriched the debate on cancel culture with empirical evidence and addressed the question of whether students censor themselves by uninviting speakers or deliberately disrupting lectures. He presented study results from the USA, which suggest that cancel culture does not lead to women and ethnic minorities, for example, having more opportunities to speak. They censor themselves instead.

The fear of vulnerability
Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Oriental Seminar of the University of Freiburg, reported on her experiences with journalists and the authors of hate messages. Islamic scholars automatically made themselves vulnerable during interviews. “Of course, things are rarely as simple as a radio journalist might like to hear them,” Pink said. Another problem is that Islamic scholars are increasingly expected to formulate opinions rather than differentiate and explain. And they are often expected to take a public stance on current aspects of their discipline that they themselves do not research. Pink demonstrated the dark side of public communication with a hate letter she had found in her mailbox. Courage is needed not only for interviews, but also for research in authoritarian regimes: “I have a number of colleagues who simply can’t travel to the countries they are researching because they are researching topics that are not wanted there.”

Panel discussion: Do we already have the scissors in our heads?

How can we counter threats to scientific freedom and science-based debate culture? Richard Traunmuüller, Johanna Pink and Benjamin Schütze, Anchor Fellow of the Young Academy for Sustainability Research at FRIAS, spoke on this question at the end of this substantive section. Bernd Kortmann moderated the panel discussion.

Topic III: “Freiburger perspectives: More courage!” (Panel discussion)
At the end of the first day, journalist Ullrich Fichtner, former Baden-Württemberg Minister of Finance Edith Sitzmann, climate activist Jule Pehnt and forest ecologist Prof. Dr. Klaus Püttmann discussed the central question of the colloquium: How do we make courageous decisions and why is it so difficult to do so? It was moderated by Dr. Arndt Michael from the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg.

Topic IV: Courage in legal, security and foreign policy

What really divides us. Moralization instead of juridification
Politicians in Germany have tried to enforce Corona vaccinations with moral pressure instead of making vaccinations a legal obligation through a law in a decisive and timely manner. This is the thesis of Prof. Dr. Ralf Poscher, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law in Freiburg. This was a mistake, he says, because “juridification” would have ensured a clear decision on the one hand, but on the other hand would have allowed the debate to continue without relying on moralizing by politicians. The moral appeals of politics to the citizens only lead to the “hardening of attitudes” among the opponents of vaccination and ultimately to social divisions, according to Poscher. The “transformation of factual issues into legal issues,” on the other hand, “allows every conflict to be decided authoritatively while keeping social discourse open.” Politicians have missed this opportunity, probably due to a lack of courage.

More courage in foreign policy?
What does the “turn of the times” mean for German foreign policy? Does it need more courage? Dr. Peter Wittig, former ambassador to Cyprus, the United States and Great Britain and Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations, addressed this question. On the one hand, foreign policy is “interwoven in many ways, and in Germany in particular, it is highly dependent on political coalitions and subject to legal provisions.” In exceptional situations – such as the Kosovo war or Germany’s non-participation in the Iraq war – “special courage” was also required. That’s what’s needed now, too, Wittig said: “A reactive approach is no longer enough.” “Containing Russia” remains important for the foreseeable future, he said; perhaps the U.S. will withdraw from Europe after the 2024 election; in addition, there is the challenge posed by China and the increasing competition between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Germany and the EU would have to strengthen their resilience, he said. “This will require active creative power, foresight, pragmatism and yes: also a fair amount of courage.”

Courage and cowardice in the Ukraine crisis
“Courage” is often used in politics as a synonym for “awakening,” “new beginning,” “paradigm shift” and as an opposite term to “standstill,” especially at the beginning of a legislative period, noted Prof. Dr. Markus Kaim of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. In his lecture, Kaim asked, “How is German politics now dealing with the attack on Ukraine, is it courageous or despondent?” In doing so, he considered different facets of courage in political action. “One can grant that the government is courageous in the sense that it takes risks,” Kaim said. At the same time, however, courage is ground down in parliamentary government and gives way to an “administered lack of courage.” “This then is expressed through the federal government’s crisis communication, which I think is rightly criticized.”

Panel discussion: Are we lacking courage in our security policy?
In the concluding panel discussion, Dr. Peter Wittig, Prof. Dr. Markus Kaim, Prof. Dr. Dietmar Neutatz, Professor of Modern and Eastern European History at the University of Freiburg, and Thomas Fricker, Editor-in-Chief of the Badische Zeitung, discussed the question: Are we currently lacking courage in security policy?

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