The Achilles Heel of the West
Tolerance is no purpose in itself, but a precondition for reconciling truth and liberty.
“The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Karl Popper once titled his book, written in his New Zealand exile during the totalitarian horror of Nazi Europe. Strangely and sadly, that topic is as relevant and virulent today as it was back then.
Yes, we have learned to live in harmony with each other. And we have been conditioned to believe in social progress. We have also assumed that turmoil elsewhere is not for the Western world to truly be concerned about.
That’s what we had thought until 2014. By now, we know better. The hubris to assume that we have answers to any global threat — or that we can manage any global pressure at our doorsteps or that even we remain invulnerable — has been replaced by intellectual shock and awe. Syria, Crimea, Ebola and ISIS are just a few of the recent incidences that have shaken our Western belief in the manageability of everything and anything.
When we are overwhelmed by events, it is especially important to stay cool-headed. Mass media means mass information — but potentially also mass hysteria. Pictures produce images, but they also become petrified symbols. The borderlines between what we truly know and what we genuinely should be concerned about are getting thinner and thinner.
Disinformation as a weapon of mass destruction
Little wonder then that disinformation has become the strongest weapon against the West with the biggest possible effect inside Western societies. The contemporary enemies of open societies use lies to cover up their contrasting understanding of political norms and values.
Putin’s propaganda machine has already somewhat succeeded in advancing Russia’s case behind the shades of grey of disinformation. In order to make people around the globe forget about the annexation of Crimea, Russia nourished violence in Donetsk and Luhansk, all the while talking about an armistice with Kiev.
Russia blames the West for breaking international law by bombing ISIS positions in Syria — thus making people forget who has helped the Assad regime in Damascus to survive the past three years.
Disinformation and propaganda are also what radical and criminal Salafists know how to handle well. Videos showing the beheading of innocent hostages are meant to provoke hysteria in Western societies. The point is to use this trigger mechanism to justify the (wrong) complaint that the West is against all Muslims.
Blurring the lines between propaganda and disinformation
Salafists systematically blur the borderline between information, disinformation and propaganda, The concept of “friend and foe” is the starting point of radical Salafists to attack open societies. Once ordinary life gives in to fear, the battle is lost.
This is why Western societies are as strong as they are vulnerable to falling into the mindset and rhetoric of thinking in terms of “friend and foe.”
Commitment to truth is noble, but shall not undermine liberty. Tolerance is no purpose in itself, but a precondition for reconciling truth and liberty. Therefore, any regressive kind of thinking in Western countries is a threat to the community of open societies at large.
This, not so coincidentally, is also the reason why the European Union is so sensitive to any increase in nationalistic and xenophobic thinking. It is not the issue as such, but the method of thinking which causes the real problem.
Hungary as a case study
A case in point can be studied in Hungary. Once the most successful (and open) country in the Eastern bloc (the happiest nation during the Soviet era), it has become almost the least successful country of post-communist transformation.
This decline manifests itself most clearly in the political culture of Hungary. Antagonistic language and misleading terminology – such as the plea of Prime Minister Victor Orban for an “illiberal democracy” — whatever that may mean – are pointing at the weakest entrance point of the arrow of Paris into the Achilles’s heel of Western societies.
Orban’s goal is to undermine trust by deliberately relying on a misleading language of ambivalence. Soviet apparatchiks, those that are still alive, must love the perverted sense of dialectics that this Hungarian “conservative” relies on to execute his political machinations.
The core not just of the Western credo – but any civilization’s credo — is this: The flip side of individual human dignity is individual responsibility. That leaves no room for any reasoning in the categories of “friend and foe” – only for a language of right and wrong.
And that, in turn, requires nothing more and nothing less than a language without lies. Standing up for that simple rule is the essence for anybody wanting Karl Popper’s legacy to prevail.