The tragedy of Cologne and its aftermath – the depletion of civility

Police officers detain people during carnival celebrations in Cologne, 4 February 2016. Getty/Volker Hartmann. All rights reserved.After the reports about the
string of sexual assaults during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, media
outlets across Europe followed with the news about refugee and migrant sex
crimes – groping at swimming pools, verbal abuse and throwing of stones on the
streets, or harassment at a music festival. Responding to these events, local
authorities issued warnings to women to avoid certain places, towns barred
migrants from entering swimming pools, thousands of police personnel were
readied to patrol carnival marches, and pink security zones for women were

This reaction is deeply
frustrating. Groups of men sexually assaulting women in public spaces is a new form of violence against women which needs to be
condemned and punished. But this wave of reporting on Cologne has increased an already
existing anti-immigrant fervor and has given fresh impetus for further violent xenophobic
attacks, as another stereotypical image of a migrant, this time as a rapist, is
settling in our imagination and exacerbating our fears.

Thus, the vulnerable,
and yet single most important resource for a successful integration of a
diverse society is now being eroded, perhaps beyond the point of return. This
resource can be called civility,
characterized as respectful, polite, and friendly behavior toward strangers,
regardless of whether they are one’s own compatriots or foreigners.

and challenges of integration

Last year, over one million
refugees came to Germany and the total number of people resettled could be much
higher if migrants are joined by their family members over future months or
years. This is a number larger than the total number of refugees that the US – with a
population of 320 million to Germany’s 80 million – has accepted in the last 10
years. These people will add up to a fifth of the
population with migrant origin who, according to official numbers, already live there. On top of that, there is a comparatively lower tolerance to open public displays of racism and
xenophobia and the lack of the feeling of national or cultural superiority.

Yet in many ways, Germany seems
to be in a unique position to deliver on its promise of integration. It has a
strong economy with a record budget surplus and a robust labor market with low
unemployment. It has an extensive and generous welfare state. It has a dense
and decentralized structure of well-funded and resourceful local public and
non-profit organizations providing services on behalf of widely shared ideals
of solidarity, equality of opportunity and social justice.

On top of that, there is an
impressive, comparatively lower tolerance to open public displays of racism and
xenophobia and the lack of the feeling of national or cultural superiority. According
to latest polls, the support for giving asylum to those fleeing war zones still remains high,
at 94%.

In the late summer of last
year, masses of ordinary people greeted arriving migrants and refugees at the
train stations. But the Willkomenskultur
has evaporated after the Cologne attacks. Germans now support more substantial limits
on immigration – caps on numbers of incoming refugees, limits on welfare
benefits, the return of economic migrants, the control of borders.

The latest demonstration of
Pegida, an anti-Islamic organization, drew thousands of supporters to Dresden.
Frauke Petry, the leader of Germany’s main rightwing anti-immigrant party,
Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), said recently that migrants crossing illegally
from Austria to Germany should be stopped with firearms, if necessary. Sahra
Wagenknech, the co-leader of the left party Die Linke proclaimed that those who
abuse hospitality, lose the right to it.

What is more, since mid-2015
Germany has registered a sharp increase in vandalizing attacks on refugee
facilities and asylum seekers’ accommodations. The journal Zeit
reports that there have been over 220
of such attacks in 2015 alone. As many incidents are not reported, the figure
could be even higher. Many of them were arson attacks; and many resulted in the
injuries of refugees (only four of them have resulted in convictions so far.) Recently,
a mob of angry protesters in Clausnitz, Saxony blocked a bus with refugees headed
to their accommodation, chanting “Go home”, and a dead pig inscribed with
“Mutti Merkel” was placed at a site where a mosque is being constructed in
Leipzig. What is more, since mid-2015
Germany has registered a sharp increase in vandalizing attacks on refugee
facilities and asylum seekers’ accommodations.

This is a vicious circle of harassment,
animosity, and aggressive and uncivilized behavior that seriously undermines the
resource which is crucial for successful integration and which consists in
making everybody, especially foreign newcomers, part of one society. That resource
is civility. It includes forms of interactions and gestures among people in
daily contexts such as on the street, in stores, or in the subway. It is more
than being polite and tolerant: empathy, compassion,
solidarity, active readiness to help are expressions of genuine civility.  

Civility is a universal human
good. It can be described in Arendtian terms as a frail and intangible human
in-between which enables human beings directly to relate to one another in
various contexts. It binds them together, not merely as distinct individuals
who are equally worthy of equal respect for their rights, but as humans worthy
of kindness and empathy. Despite its intangible quality, civility is the
essence of what sharing the human world could possibly mean. It escapes
institutionalization. It has to be practiced and reciprocated in direct face-to-face

Like other common-pool
resources (air, water, sunshine), it is nearly impossible to exclude potential
beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from the use of civility. And unlike
other common-pool resources, it never faces a
problem of overuse. On the contrary, the more it is used, the more robust
it becomes. But it faces the problem of fragility, and is difficult to renew
once destroyed. Civility sparks civility but in the case of anti-social
behavior, people either withdraw or reciprocate.

among modern strangers

In a book Distant Strangers published last year, historian James Vernon shed
new light on civility. He showed that the process of
modernization in Britain – arguably the first modern society – crucially consisted in establishing a profoundly new social condition: a society of
distant and anonymous strangers who are in abstract and legally regulated
political, economic, and social relations. Vernon urged the need to explore how
people navigate the terrain where they are strangers to one another, how
they re-embed or flesh out their abstract and bureaucratized economic, social,
and political relations in space and through more personalized ties.

Sociology hitherto has not
provided the framework for this kind of exploration because it has always been
preoccupied with problematizing the modern condition of strangeness. Sociology hitherto has not
provided the framework for this kind of exploration because it has always been
preoccupied with problematizing the modern condition of strangeness. While
Marxist tradition focused on alienation under capitalism, critical theory
inspired by Max Weber focused on the destruction of freedom and autonomy due to
modern legal rationalization.

Only in the late twentieth
century, reflecting on the growth of pluralism, complexity, and diversity in modern
western societies, did some thinkers, e.g. Germany’s Jürgen Habermas or Hauke
Brunkhorst, embrace the condition of strangeness as the prominent social condition of democratic pluralist societies,
integrated not by common culture but by law and individual rights and
deliberative practices.

But how the social condition
of strangeness is humanized has not been an object of further investigation. Political
philosophy, especially its republican tradition, long ago emphasized active,
participatory, and virtuous practices of citizenship as a way of giving life to
abstract political relations. At the end of the twentieth century, many
thinkers emphasized civil society – the sphere of voluntary associations,
social movements, citizen initiatives, and other forms of collective action and
mobilization that emerge in the space between the state and intimate sphere –
as the solution for a robust democratic polity through the exercise of political
rights and civil liberties.

Civil society is assuredly hugely
important in modern democracy. However, the example of a right-wing movement
like Pegida shows that civil society associations are usually not only oriented
to a limited set of goals (and bureaucratized as they grow) but also that their
goals can be exclusionary, discriminatory, subversive, or illiberal.

As the role of civil society
in the process of integration of a society can be ambiguous, social sciences
are only now beginning to find a name and relevance for civility in human
society, especially in a society with social and cultural diversity and
mobility. A study by The Young
Foundation from 2011 suggests that civility
– subtle, daily practices of treating one another with empathy – acts as a hugely important
social ‘glue’. Correspondingly, aggression, rudeness, abrasiveness, and
indifference, not to say violence, leave lasting emotional and social damage as
they shape individuals’ perceptions about a place and their expectation of
future behavior.

of civility in an immigrant society

We need to find ways to
sustain and cultivate civility, if only because our societies are undergoing
massive transformation in the ways we relate and interact with one another. On
the one hand, technology and social media transform human connectedness into
indirect connectivity. On the other hand, securitization and legal regulation
of every physical space and social context makes us confront one another almost
exclusively as rights or other legal entitlements holders. Increasingly we turn
to law enforcement or judicial process for the protection of these.

But is this anywhere near sufficient? Immigration
is impossible to stop, and all our societies are undergoing a rapid rise in all kinds of diversity
and plurality. Many resources are needed if we want to succeed in the task of
keeping our societies cohesive and integrated, with no parallel communities,
ungovernable neighborhoods and immigrant ghettos, and with no increase in incivility
and violence in urban areas alongside other forms of social exclusion,
marginalization, and alienation which, in the end, significantly undermine
everybody’s freedom, democracy, and security. We surely need laws, policies and
welfare state services protecting individuals against risks and discrimination
and reinforcing equality of opportunity in order to improve the lives of
individuals. But we cannot rely merely on a culturally impoverished notion of
welfare state services or law enforcement if we want to make humans part of one

It is civility, an inexpensive
human resource, which has the greatest potential to facilitate a successful
integration. As a spontaneous expression of empathy in a concrete situation,
civility is difficult to program or institutionalize. It must be awakened in
each of us, here and now. The tragedy of Cologne and its aftermath is that
people may be less willing to activate this genuine human ability within them. One
piece of good news is that there are some who realize how fragile this resource
is vis-à-vis harmful stereotypical images. A young German woman recently
created an online map ( which tries to debunk rumors and stories
about migrant crimes spreading quickly via social media. The map pinpoints all
the supposed incidents and then links them with investigation reports. Most of
the stories, it turns out, are false.

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