As a child who grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), I witnessed first-hand the powerful influence that a single event – such as the fall of the Berlin Wall – can have on human. Even though the majority of Germans were striving for reunification, at that time, values and norms differed radically East and West. For example, skills such as leveraging their professional network and engaging in competitive negotiations in a corporate setting were underdeveloped in the GDR. As a consequence, those in the East had a natural disadvantage when competing with West Germans. The newly formed government failed to account for this imbalance. As a result, the regime shift, coupled with the dynamics of globalization, left East Germans disadvantaged and with a high level of distrust in the government. Years later, this distrust has escalated to a shift towards populism, which is increasingly becoming more extreme.
This story is just one of many in a global context: people feeling left behind or even unheard, and as a result, falling for false, extreme, and sometimes contradicting promises. The danger associated with it: deterioration of morality, racism, and ultimately, constraints on freedom of thought and speech. As one of the children of the GDR who had the valuable opportunity to be young enough to experience and take full advantage of democracy, I cannot undervalue the benefit of freedom, tolerance, and choice!
Yet, I have been absent from politics and social activism over the last few years. I took our constitution and the political apparatus built upon it for granted. I was focused on optimizing for wealth. After all, our society is largely built on the idea of “winner takes all”. With greater global exposure, however, I realized that pure self-optimization is not an option anymore. I fear that we are about to lose the rights for which our parents and grandparents fought so hard.
I see two main reasons that hold back people with resources from taking a stand for our constitutionally anchored values:
- Lack of available time to dive deep beneath the veneer of ‘news’ – let’s face it, most of us have reduced our reading habits to scanning the headlines. Personalized (fake) news accommodate a rather undifferentiated opinion, not to mention the lack of cross-checking diverse and independent sources of information to establish a more credible version of the content presented.
- Not having the courage to start – When we see the problems in society such as populism and climate change as overwhelming, the political system as too bureaucratic to address change, we feel dwarfed by the magnitude of the issues and our perceived limited ability to effect change weighs on us.
Hence, it just feels easier not to get involved and rather to focus on oneself than to take a stand. But let me tell you why this is not an option anymore. Deterioration of morals will make behavior acceptable that is not aligned with our constitution. As long as you are part of the majority you might not care much, but what if you become the minority, or a minority takes control? There are certain things that cannot be bought by money, such as freedom, tolerance, and choice. I personally, am disappointed by the so-called elite (including myself) as they are the ones who have the resources to be informed, to be engaged, to express an opinion. Every one of us should be politically and socially active to assure that the world we so much enjoy today for its safe environment, will be preserved.
During my time at MIT – admittedly not the most politically active institute – I asked myself constantly what can I do to take a stand. The best answers I have received so far are the following:
ENGAGE! by not missing out on even one vote that is given to you. If you are citizen of the European Union, it’s your obligation to vote. If you are a citizen of the United States of America, of Germany, of Italy—you name it—it is your obligation to take a stand. If you are a parent, vote for who’s supposed to be on the school board. Do not let those opportunities pass!
INVEST! time and, if you can, money, in causes that are important to you. Take the time to demonstrate, to make your opinion be heard loud and clear! Whether it is that black lives matter, or it is that women should have control over their body and should not be told by men what is right or wrong, or whether it is about equal rights for the LGBTQ community – all those matters are prized rights granted by our constitution. Write blogs or articles if you can’t spare the time to demonstrate but be OPINIONATED! Assure that the constant struggle of outbalancing local vs. international desires, diversity vs. homogeneity, growth vs. sustainability will be won in favor of freedom, tolerance, and choice! Let us be the generation that is ensuring a free, just and equitable world.
And last but not least, start to QUESTION! what is presented to you as a fact. Understand whether what is said is indeed fact-based and search actively for potential contradictions. Return to political discussions at home, with friends, and at social events and make others aware of your findings so they start asking questions! After all, our world is complex and there are no easy answers to complex problems. This holds true for Germany as it is for other nations around the world, all trying to overcome their own internal divides.