The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For the benefit of society, get out of your comfort zone

BERLIN — German citizens are increasingly alienated from each other, with a large gap between how people view themselves and their beliefs about others’ opinions. A research project I led found that while 80 percent of respondents viewed solidarity and compassion for their fellow man to be important, only 10 percent thought that others felt the same way. Similar disconnects occurred over family values, employment and sense of community. Put simply, even though a vast majority of German society shares similar values, people seem to assume they are more or less alone in their views.

What happened? How did Germans lose their belief in shared values within their society, an essential element of any democratic society?

Social interaction among different social circles — whether it’s through discourse, argument, clarification, affirmation or examination of changing norms and values — is crucial for any democratic society to function. Through these interactions, people gain firsthand experiences with those outside their circles, which allow them to replace stereotype with understanding. Where this is absent, resentment thrives. Areas in the former East Germany (with the exception of Berlin) host a lower share of immigrants — at about 4 percent compared to 12 percent in the western regions of Germany — which means that interactions with immigrants are rarer and xenophobia is therefore especially strong.

Given how crucial overlapping social circles are to cultivating solidarity within a nation, it is worrisome that there are fewer and fewer interactions between different social groups occurring in modern society. Take Germany’s education system, for example. From as early as the days of the Reformation, Germany has had a system in which children from the age of 10 were placed on different educational paths based on their performance, a decision which has lifelong effects on their careers and social status. But now, segregation is taking place even before the age of 10.

Germany as a whole has become more segregated since the 1980s. In about half of the country’s bigger cities, we now find neighborhoods in which more than 50 percent of children grow up in poverty. This is affecting the makeup of preschools and elementary schools where children from different backgrounds up until the age of 10 would usually mix. Now, these schools turn more and more into insular bubbles with little interaction between rich children, who are rarely of an immigrant background and less privileged children, some of whom are migrants. Without such interaction, it is difficult to see how children from different backgrounds can develop an understanding of each other.

German society used to contain numerous structures that allowed different groups to mix, if only for a period of time. Military or civilian service, which was once mandatory, was abolished in 2011. Churches, once the focus of most communities, have lost their prominence. My research project found that only 8 percent of Germans say that church is important to them. Germans no longer even shop together. More and more shopping venues are segregated into high-budget and low-budget options. The closure of social circles is also evident in the way people choose partners and spouses.

It is not only through factors such as education, income and race or ethnicity that groups isolate themselves. Divisions are increasingly occurring between the people who see the world as one (cosmopolitans) and those who believe in strong national identities (communitarians). Both socio-economic differences and cultural rifts create different ideas of how the world should be, which have torn down many of the old bridges that once connected German society. What needs to be done to bring society back together?

To begin, we need to develop long-term policies to prevent the further widening of chasms within our society. New community meeting places are critical to this, whether they’re online platforms or physical spaces. This will require urban development policies that enable different economic and cultural groups to live together. It will require schools in which curriculums reward interactions among various social groups and where children from diverse backgrounds can mingle.

Germany needs a mandatory year of community service, during which citizens interact with members of different social circles. This idea is supported by over 70 percent of people we interviewed for our “Legacy Study,” a major survey conducted in collaboration with the newspaper Die Zeit, the Infas Institute for Applied Social Sciences and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Germany must get organizations such as sports clubs to be as inclusive as possible by waiving membership fees for low-income groups, for example. It must also expand civic education in order to sensitize people to and get them engaged in social issues. As part of immigration regulation, Germany needs to make clear both to immigrants and citizens what is expected of them and help find ways for these groups to interact.

Overall, Germany needs policymaking that focuses on the common good instead of offering single-issue reforms for particular groups, which may cause certain parts of society to feel neglected and increase fragmentation as more people isolate into their narrow social groups. While encouraging interaction between different social circles is key, it is also important to keep in mind that a balance must be struck between the need to encourage mutual understanding and preserving the traditional structures and values of society. Showing respect for others and trying to understand their point of view is important, but people also need the security of the familiar.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.