From Cosmopolitanism to Public Sociology
February 16, 2011
Cosmopolitanism is a normative term rooted in the enlightenment; and it is an ethical concept that is discussed throughout the world in debates about perceptions of justice, democracy, and human rights. Tolerance seems to be a precondition for the development of a habitus of cosmopolitanism, but it is an ambivalent term. On the one hand it asks for mutual recognition (for example, of different lifestyles) and the establishment of political equality, while on the other hand it can be used an instrument of power, domination and exclusion (repressive tolerance). The dispute then is about whether all kinds of cultural and ethnic differences can or should be endured and/or how repressive or permissive forms of tolerance can be legitimated. If one sees tolerance as a precondition for cosmopolitanism, then the question is still what can cosmopolitanism mean in the context of ethnic and cultural plurality?
In the context of today’s urban space within a democratic state, it cannot be the elitist project of a cosmopolitanism from above, but rather a cosmopolitanism from below. Stuart Hall speaks about the latter and uses the concept of vernacular cosmopolitanism, which derives from the everyday experience of encounters with different cultural life styles and conviviality. However, Hall warns against a perception of culture as a clear-cut, single, coherent, integrated and organic set of rules and traditions: “The world is not divided up neatly into particular distinct cultures wedded to every community…”. Instead what we need is the awareness of the limitations of any one culture or any one identity. In other words, people are not scripted by a single community or group. In particular within urban spaces the confrontation and mutual influence of a great variety of cultural expressions is a given. At the same time there is great variation in the appreciation and reception of differences – while some focus on or are even obsessed with (visual) differences (habits, clothes, traditions) and perceive them as an expression of distance from their own way of life, others concentrate on commonalities of practices, values, and customs. The latter may, for example, focus on the shared experiences of young people or on women or on mothers. Within urban society these groups need to find a way to live with each other, either by practicing in-difference or by engaging one another. Cosmopolitanism in practice, then, means negotiation – to negotiate a compromise between equality and difference not once and forever, but continuously. This negotiation process is by no means a harmonious enterprise – it is quarrelsome, controversial and exhausting.
Let me use my city, Frankfurt, as an example. Over the last year as a preparation for a change of direction in the city’s policy, the Integration Commissioner of the City of Frankfurt, Nargess Eskandari-Grünberg, introduced a new concept of integration and diversity that was debated in hundreds of local meetings and discussion groups on the Internet with as many Frankfurters as possible – people of different genders, ages, religions, social classes, ethnic groups etc. By the end of October 2010, 47,000 people had participated. The aim of these deliberations was to include people in a dialogue about how to step away from the political tradition of dealing with migrants and their offspring as ethnic isolates and instead focus more on the cultural needs of individuals with diverse lifestyles. To my knowledge, this process is unique in Germany and politicians garnered a lot of popular support for listening to, acknowledging and sometimes even challenging the views of ordinary citizens.
However, Frankfurt does not live in a space separate from the rest of the nation.
During the summer of 2010 a controversial debate was kicked off by a prominent member of the board of trustees of the German Central Bank, also located in Frankfurt, Thilo Sarrazin, with the publication of his book Germany does itself in. In this book Sarrazin paints a future dominated by the extinction of the German Volk, claiming that German welfare recipients and Muslims are the culprits. Similar to the authors of the infamous The Bell Curve, which attributed the social problems of African-American to their genes, Sarrazin points to the genetic basis of cultural decay among marginalized populations in Germany. Both books claim to substantiate their partial conclusion on purely scientific grounds, using statistics from a wide range of research.
Although Sarrazin’s thesis is not new, the way this book was presented has had a tremendous impact on the communication climate in Germany. Sarrazin has been able to catapult himself into the heart of political debate on the national and local level. His book is a national bestseller with over a million copies sold. It is discussed in cafes and on steeet corners, in villages and in cities. The media has played a big role in promoting the book and the debate. The author, a social democrat and former Minister of Financial Affairs of Berlin, portrayed himself and was embraced as a ‘public intellectual’, one who is not afraid of ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘dares to break taboos about political correctness and problems with migrants, in particular with those from Turkey and Arab countries’.
There are several undercurrents in this debate:
- The assertion that politicians and the government are too distant from the people, that they make decisions without the consent of the majority, and they are not concerned about peoples’ real worries;
- The conviction that German society is supposed to be culturally homogeneous society and that Islam is a threat;
- The belief that Germany is not a country of immigration and that migrants are a temporary phenomenon. The fact that they stay is a genuine problem for the cohesion of society and for national identity.
Many intellectuals and politicians have supported Sarrazin, not so much for his genetic argument, but rather for his view that political correctness has constrained a debate about migration, that multiculturalism is a chimera of the left and that migrants – in particular Muslims – cause problems. All this has certainly contributed to the hype about the book. On the one side, there were and still are politicians and intellectuals opposing this view. The Social Democratic Party has taken steps to exclude him from the party and the German Bank pressed for his exclusion from the board of trustees that was conveniently settled by Sarrazin’s early retirement. On the other side, high-ranking politicians of all ‘colours’, well known feminists, scientists and artists have supported the bashing of Islam. The upshot is a complex constellation of voices and interests both in favor of and against migration and Muslims but overall the atmosphere is embittered and positions are getting more and more rigid. Extreme rightist groups have benefited and it seems that there is very little chance to bring some kind of rationality into this debate. Those who try to challenge Sarrazin’s diagnosis, pointing to various research results that contradict his empirical claims, seem to be fighting a losing battle. The embittered spirit, one could say, is out of the bottle and the sorcerer’s apprentice seems unable to put it back in.
What does this mean for the debate on diversity in Frankfurt? As a sociologist I could say that this is an interesting debate, which generates lots of new research questions that can be studied by observing the various parties involved, analysing the press coverage, depicting the media wars, putting on ‘blinders’ with a view to finally writing a ‘balanced’ article or a book on the aftermath of the Sarrazin affair. That is what Max Weber would call ‘sociology as a profession’, separating science from politics, sticking to ‘value neutral description’. This kind of sociology, however, is contested by what was once called radical sociology and is now called public sociology from below – one that is connected to civil society and its agents. From the view of public sociology – and here Adorno and other Frankfurt School scholars can be seen as forerunners – it is important to intervene in debates that threaten or distort open and respectful contact and communication, especially where certain groups are being scape-goated through populist demagogy.
Thus, it is important to make space for those groups who are silent or, at least, inaudible —people with and without a migration background, who share workplaces, who do sports and study together in schools and universities, who are members of bi-national families, etc.
Here I think the university and the city have interests in common: we need to engage in public discussion if we want to guarantee an atmosphere of mutual respect in which students can develop their competencies. It is reasonable to assume that our students are affected in one way or another by this debate. Therefore, my plea is for a project, a dialogue, which takes Adorno’s question “Wie kann man ohne Angst verschieden sein?” (How to live difference without fear?) as a motto for a debate about the conditions of cosmopolitanism that would involve students, teachers, professors, bankers, politicians, teachers, taxi-drivers and so on. This may be an arduous effort, but nevertheless one that is not totally utopian – in any case it would be a contribution to the de-escalation of hostilities and a step forward towards cosmopolitanism from below.
Helma Lutz, Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany