Taking It to the Street

As I came into one of my classes today, the students all gathered around me, waving red pamphlets and telling me we have to go outside! I didn’t know what was going on until I realized there was a demonstration going on, right outside the building, visible from the classroom window. My students tried to convince me that they were really interested in that demonstration and wanted to go there, which I doubted since they obviously preferred this to a lesson. Eventually we went outside to see what it was all about.

The demonstration had the slogan “Class Struggle Instead of World War” and mixed socialist ideas mainly with military criticism. They had military trucks and a fake rocket, one was wearing a uniform and they were claiming that we have to fight within Germany instead of fighting militarily in the rest of the world, to achieve equality and more rights for workers. The students asked questions (other classes were outside too) and the protesters tried to answer and explain, with very different methods. One, wearing an Angela Merkel-mask, was very agitated and was discussing mercilessly, while another one was calm, trying to explain what they wanted to do and asking for support.

Personally, I was very conflicted about the whole thing. I agreed with some of their ideas, but definitely not all of it. While there were reasonable questions asked, they also filled their pamphlets with conspiracy nonsense. Even more problematic was their approach to me. They criticized the military, the government, the NATO, the West, anyone basically. Their criticism was aggressive, “Join the fight!” and very ideological. They knew exactly what people were supposed to believe and do and they had a hard time accepting anything else. If you ask me, that’s no way to achieve change. Mainly, because no one listens to you if you just tell them what they are doing wrong. Without offering path that seems better, by giving you the feeling that you are stupid if you believe all the lies, their ideas are easily rejected.

And that was the thing. The students were interested, but not in listening, but in rejecting and ridiculing the protesters. They provoked them into discussions, they laughed at their arguments and took pictures, urging them to do something funny. It didn’t occur to them to think about what they were saying, to consider their arguments, to ask serious questions. It was clear to them that you can’t take anyone seriously who stands on the street and does something radical. Later, they argued, that it must be nonsense that big companies exploit workers or that the military is used for different purposes than the politicians claim. They were more willing to trust a corporation like Daimler (which is big in the town where the school is located) than people who are willing to go out on the street and organize a protest.

And that’s what I told them, that I admire the protesters because they go so far and try to do something. They don’t just sit back and let things happen. I disagree with many of their ideas and especially their methods, but I listened to them and looked at their posters before realizing that. But actually, it’s the most normal thing in our society to laugh at those fools, to make fun of them, to ignore anything they say. Because we want to go home and be absolutely certain that we are doing things right, that there is no need to question anything, that there is nothing to worry about. And the cynicism of students laughing about claims that the military might do something wrong worries me more than printing pamphlets that include silly statements. We do so much to try to “improve” our lives, to distract ourselves, but when someone is talking about actual change, we get scared, no matter if there’s any relevance or truth to the claims. No surprises, please. I’m sure some wise person said somewhere that we can’t achieve change if we are afraid of change.