Recently I met a number of Syrian refugees for dinner. Next to me sat a doctor who had arrived in Germany a year ago. We began talking about his situation. “The worse thing,” he remarked, “is that I am treated like a second-class person.” He felt as if he was being pushed back and forth by the authorities. There were repeated calls for dialog, however a genuine exchange never took place because the solutions to all the problems, at least those which could be addressed, were always and exclusively on the German side. In particular, the use of the word dialog fatally reminded him of the situation in Syria where Assad initially offered the opposition a dialog on numerous occasions, without anything fundamentally changing—until the situation completely escalated.

With this observation the Syrian doctor touched on a central problem of our political culture which has been further exacerbated by the arrival of the displaced persons, people with completely different experiences and bodies of knowledge. Due to its inflationary use in political discourse over recent years and decades the term dialog has been so impoverished that at best it is meaningless, or, all too frequently, abused to express an implicit rejection of alternative positions.

This is most apparent in the case of the expression “a dialog at eye level,” which is often employed in North-South negotiations. Here the expression is especially perfidious, as it is not just used in situations in which a de facto power asymmetry exists, it actually brings about this asymmetry. The person who makes this claim states that he sees the others at the level of his eyes, in other words, he himself dictates the desired height, provides the measuring rod, and thus functions as the benchmark for the others. The formula is allegedly used to establish equality between the speakers, whereas in fact it is an implicit power gesture. The term dialog provides a semblance of equality. In this form it contributes to a political consensus culture which no longer sees its task as creating consensus, but simply asserting it.

Thus the original, classic meaning of dialog becomes perverted: Dialogs are of special relevance and importance when it comes to articulating dissent, when different perspectives and opinions on the same matter are expressed. The dialog does not serve to assert equality, but to express difference. This constituted its political value.

What is happening in today’s consensus democracy? The discussion about what is to be done is delegated to expert committees, in other words, consciously banished from the political arena. These expert committees, composed of scientists, economic representatives, bureaucrats, and legal experts, often from private law firms, then present the facts. And the politicians legitimize their actions as executors of this pre-given, inherent logic. All that is left for them to do is make decisions based on these facts, submitting to a practical necessity which appears without alternative. Political considerations no longer play a role.

This approach is based on a popular understanding of science which proceeds as if the sciences describe the world the way it is. The fact that the sciences themselves have long since abandoned this view of themselves is suppressed. Every serious scientist knows that facts, as the Latin word factum already implies, refers to something manufactured by the scientists themselves, never an absolute truth.

The articulation of dissent no longer has a place in a political culture which invokes the factual knowledge of scientists and experts in this manner. In the consensus culture of contemporary politics there is only inside and outside. Either one belongs and accepts the rules of the game as prescribed by the local world view, or one is excluded.

The people, the Demos, merely get in the way. That is why fundamental decisions are generally prepared behind closed doors and only presented at the last moment, shortly before their implementation. “Stuttgart 21” is an example of this. The citizens’ ideas about their city, about how they would like to live, were kept out of the planning process for as long as possible. And then, when the public discussion could no longer be obstructed, the state went so far as to unlawfully attack the protest using police violence, just as it began to articulate itself.

This is even clearer in the case of the TTIP and TiSA negotiations, whereby it is not the danger of chlorinated chickens on our plates that is the real problem, but the abandonment of the political sphere. By voluntarily adjusting to US directives, Europe’s democratically elected representatives are relinquishing their influence over important areas of global trade, leaving them to the multinationals. Through its transfer to the extra-political realm, the decision-making process has been completely removed from any form of social control.

However, when a society is robbed of the opportunity to bring different and dissident views to the negotiation table, or no longer feels part of a living social process, then the excluded look for other forms of expression.

For a long period this was contained and channeled in the Western democracies through the gleaming commodity world of consumer society. Difference could be expressed in the form of clothing, eating habits, and extreme sports. However, this technique does not function with social groups that have been excluded from actively sharing in the gains and prosperity of Western societies, or whose participation is limited.

These people frequently look for support in communities, often religious or cultural, where they experience a sense of belonging. And these communities then increasingly disassociate themselves from the rest of society. They create their own symbols and world views from out of which they articulate their difference. Once such a dynamic has begun, society intensifies this marginalization through its own self-understanding. How this mechanism functions can be seen in the case of the refugee debate: Either one aims to send refugees from other cultures back to their home countries as quickly as possible, or conversely, to integrate them into one’s own society as quickly as possible. In the first case difference is essentialized. The refugees are fundamentally different to us. In the second case the goal is to turn them into citizens of the consensus society as quickly as possible using selective measures.

However, what is required is a culture of dialog in which our society can be developed—through an engagement with the displaced persons and their fund of experiences and knowledge—in the direction of an open society imbued with the spirit of cosmopolitanism.

The absence of such a culture of dialog is thrown into relief by the large number of people arriving every day, while the prospect of its realization is becoming ever more remote. Due to the explosiveness of the situation the existing structures are confronted with such enormous challenges that an actionism which only thinks from day to day and looks for quick pragmatic solutions appears to be the only way to gain control of the situation.

However, if one takes the experience of the Syrian doctor seriously, then the administration of the refugees cannot be the only answer to the political question of what role they should play in a common society.

In order to answer this question different time-spaces are needed, not the bureaucratically managed detention centers. Sites where a genuine dialog can be conducted over a long time are needed, sites where difference can be made fruitful for a new society, which without doubt, will be an immigration society. Only when this effort succeeds will the displaced persons also become stakeholders in our society, which as a result will gain in richness and complexity. If it fails, the displaced persons will remain the objects of bureaucratic shunting yards, and the so-called refugee problem will become a permanent social problem.

With the arrival of the displaced persons the question is posed anew every day: Do we want to win back our society as a democratic society shaped by its current and future citizens?