I don’t understand why or: Voices from the Transatlantic Civil Society
I do not understand why the Americans elected Donald Trump. I do not understand why the Germans took in all the refugees. I do not understand why the Americans are so sensitive about public welfare provision or why they need their flags and anthem everywhere. I do not understand how the Germans can think of Edward Snowden as a hero. There is a lot I do not understand. And I, here, does not refer to me personally, but to significant shares of the American and the German populations. It seems that the ideological trench between Germany and America is growing strong and it remains difficult, especially on a political level, to find analogies because the political systems are too difficult in too many dimensions. The average citizen is quite puzzled about each other’s system, however much respect they might have for each other’s way of life, achievements, history or standing in the world – but it also results in pretty rigid stereotypes or a very persistent sometimes subtler, sometimes more open anti-Americanism or European arrogance thinking respectively. But understanding for each other is the necessary condition for a functioning transatlantic civil society. Without aiming at quantifying how much exactly we do or do not understand each other, I believe that more understanding, especially beyond experts and best-educated demographics, is generally better.
Many ways can lead to fostering understanding, and many of them lie not on an expert level but with society itself on an output an input level: We need explanations from the civil society for the civil society, prepared and elaborated in a way that makes it accessible for a wide, interested audience, reaching new and wider shares of both societies, in order to bridge the trenches that have arisen between the German and American societies, but might also be able to help understanding and healing those within the two societies.
Collection of Questions
For this endeavor, I would like to propose a two-step process: a stage of asking, and a stage of answering. In the beginning, we would identify groups in the USA and Germany that are interested and happy to participate: school classes, sports clubs, choirs, parliamentarian groups etc. – from various age, geographical, political and intellectual backgrounds. In fact, the mere participation could spark renewed interest in the transatlantic relations independent of the outcomes. Then, each of those groups could provide two questions that elucidate what they understand least about each other’s country: “About Germany, I do not understand why …” (questions must be political rather than merely descriptive). Also, it should be groups and not individuals for two reasons. First, it can promote seriousness since we need as many of them as possible to participate in the second round as well, and groups can still take part even if individual members lose interest. Second, both questions and answers receive higher legitimacy if they represent a group of people rather than single opinions. Then, when a significant number of groups have provided their two questions, they can be clustered, partly summarized where they overlap and a catalogue of questions can be created.
Collection of Answers
In the second round, the very same groups will be presented with the catalogue that emerged in the other country. They will be randomly allocated three random questions, which they again must answer in their own words but in a very limited word count. Since some of the questions presumably could be clustered beforehand and every group will answer one more question than they asked, there will be more answers than questions in this stage. There will be different answers for each question, ideally representing different backgrounds and possibly different views.
Compilation and Usage
A set of questions that emerged from within society and answers that were given by society, rather than by experts or politicians only, allows for a more expansive but also more tangible picture of each other’s society and world view. The answers can, again, be clustered and ordered, but should not be unnecessarily processed. The output could rather be, as an offline option, a visualization like a book that makes the questions and the answers and their respective backgrounds easy to grasp. One page would then have, for instance, the question “I do not understand why the Americans love driving so much – question from school class 10c, Helmholtz-Gymnasium Munich” and below that, the variety of answers: “Because driving means…. – OneVoice choir Miami”, “Actually we don’t, we… – North Dakota Chess Society” etc. The results can be an excellent base to go into schools or for any other educational or political event, panel discussions or conferences (e.g. as inspirations to reflect on background screens of a German-American conference), as well as an invitation to browse through them online. They can be used as brainteasers, for instance, as to ask an audience how they would answer a certain question about their own country, and then offer the gathered results for comparison. It is designed to stimulate thinking and reflection and to learn about the reasoning that prevails in society, because they do not necessarily overlap with what is transported in media.
A meta-analysis might be interesting as well, but it is not the predominant goal to analyze trends in the questions and answers, for example. This project idea is meant to be framed in a way predominantly free from scientific analysis, allowing for a refreshing, tangible and direct interaction between the societies. Therefore, analytic deliberations should not disproportionately influence the design of the project, but remain an interesting side-effect.
This proposal might not carry a game-changing analysis of German-American relations. What it does is providing a very tangible and realizable project idea that can contribute to fostering understanding between the German and American civil societies, paving the way towards a stronger transatlantic civil society encompassing wider shares of both populations.