A few months ago the book “Cancel Culture – End of the Enlightenment?” by Julian Nida-Rümelin was published. It is a zeitgeist book in two senses. For several years there have been repeated protests against publications, against statements, against television appearances by people whose opinions seem unbearable to other people. They should not have a public platform. The occasion can be important or even very marginal; there is a chaotic, unpredictable element to the process of “cancelling”. It is also a zeitgeist book because this phenomenon is being discussed with increasing unease and voices of dubious provenance are also speaking out against it – voices that should perhaps also be canceled?
Or rather not? That would be Nida-Rümelin’s position. Nida-Rümelin sees three stages of canceling: excluding opinions from the discourse, excluding people from the discourse and threatening people with social or physical death because of their opinions. He sees the current “cancel culture” as a threat to democracy because democracy depends on the freest possible exchange of opinions on equal terms in order to form a well-founded opinion and come to jointly supported decisions. It is therefore important to tolerate opinions that are completely different from your own. Spelling out this basic idea, his book – 186 pages long – appeals to tolerance and to strive for good arguments, not just to conduct strategic discourses that only serve to assert one’s own opinion. At the end of the book there is a short case study of cases of cancellation from the Pharaoh Akhenaten to the present day.
This evening the Bavarian State Library in Munich invited people to a discussion about his theses and his book. There were around 300 mostly older and seemingly well-off people there. Book people. Nida-Rümelin briefly explained his criticism of “cancel culture” again, followed by a discussion with Johan Schloemann from the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the audience. The format is not suitable for testing the exchange of arguments on an equal footing – the asymmetry between author and audience is usually too great for that – but the discussion was still interesting and imaginative.
The comments from the audience focused primarily on the question of what can be done against “cancel culture”, how people can be persuaded to use arguments as a guide, whether there really is only one truth, what role the “linguistic turn “ in philosophy and postmodernism played in all this, or which authority should decide which opinions are to be tolerated and which are not. According to Nida-Rümelin, there are limits where a counterpart does not share democratic values at all, i.e. where the common foundation of the discourse of wanting to clarify something through the exchange of arguments is missing. For example, he doesn’t want to discuss things with Nazis. At the end there doesn’t have to be a consensus, but only the acceptance of the decision after the arguments have been exchanged. Nida-Rümelin saw no room for many truths. There is one reality, not many, and one can actually no longer be postmodern today. The authority that decides what has to be endured is all of us, was his answer to the question about the highest judge of discourse. Whether this is a viable argument could certainly be debated.
The evening led me to the question of whether insisting on the better argument and the orientation towards the truth, as necessary as it is on the one hand, but on the other hand, if it becomes too much of a benchmark, can not also fuel the desire to cancel. Perhaps other interests should be respected rather than the subjectively perceived untruthfulness of a counterpart? It is not for nothing that the constitutional lawyer Böckenförde saw the achievement of the liberal constitutional state in guaranteeing not the truth, but peace. Is civil society overwhelmed by this? Or do you need to rediscover and take on your responsibility for it?