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Good arguments against destructive behaviour

Authors: Michael Sommer Published:

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In Germany, argumentation training has proven to be a good basis for resisting extremist views and racist slogans in everyday life.

When he appears, he sometimes requires police protection. In any case, you have to be prepared for commotion and heated discussions.

Klaus-Peter Hufer is an adult educator who, until his retirement, worked as Head of Department at a small adult education centre in western Germany near Düsseldorf.

He made a name for himself in Germany mainly because, more than 20 years ago, he published a small booklet entitled “Argumentationstraining gegen Stammtischparolen” (Argumentation Training against “Regulars’ Table Slogans”).

In Germany, “Regulars’ Table Slogans” refers to prejudices that are often expressed with flat statements and half-truths – things that could be heard at the regulars’ table in pubs, for example.

Klaus-Peter Hufer

Hufer was so outraged by the right-wing extremism strongly emerging in the party landscape and the public sphere in Germany at the time, that he decided to do something about it.

Without further support, he wrote a training concept for his colleagues, with the idea of using rhetoric to combat right-wing arguments in everyday life. Since then, he has published more than 300 articles on this topic in Germany.

Ignore it or react?

Have you ever experienced this?

The otherwise peaceful neighbour at a cosy barbecue starts to rant unrestrainedly about refugees: they’re taking people’s jobs, they’re all economic refugees and freeloaders. Or someone stands up in a group and claims that climate change is just an invention of the powerful who want to scare us. What do you do? Ignore it or react?

The basic principle of Klaus-Peter Hufer’s training is simple. The participants learn specific and real-life methods of standing up to extremist, racist people or stereotypical and false contributions to a discussion, and not remaining mute.

It is important to have the civil courage to take a clear stand against such clumsy statements.

“My interest was and still is to enable all those who are confronted with such talk to act decisively and react quickly. They learn to find appropriate arguments in the discussion and also to have a bit of civil and social courage,” he explains.

Now, there are quality guidelines and a training concept for argumentation trainers, as well as an online app Konterbunt, which is structured as a game and uses various everyday situations. The training model is also being distributed in Austria and Switzerland.

There have also been requests from non-German-speaking countries to adapt the training, but Hufer does not have the time or capacity to take care of the translations. An attempt to update the training within the framework of an EU project (Erasmus+) with numerous European partners and to distribute it in other countries has just failed, as the application was rejected by the responsible German national agency in 2022.

Citizenship education is important in Germany

Citizenship education outside schools has a special status in Germany. The reasons for this can be found in the country’s history: for the idea of democracy and human rights to take root after the National Socialist era, institutions of civic education were specifically established.

These include the “Federal Agency for Civic Education” and comparable institutions in the federal states.

These organisations, which receive public funding, in turn support youth and adult education institutions in implementing democracy education programmes. They also have their own extensive educational programme and offer a wide variety of materials.

Argumentation training is an integral part of the programme and has proven its worth above all because it combines classic instruments of communication training with citizenship education. Everyone can use it in their everyday life and reflect on their own behaviour.

Recognising hidden messages

Those who undergo argumentation training are first sensitised to recognise dangerous soundbites and stereotypes. Often, such people come across very covertly, for example when terms and comparisons from Nazi jargon are used, or obvious historical facts are denied.

According to Klaus-Peter Hufer, “regulars’ table soundbites” are characterised by simplicity, clumsiness, generalisation and their mostly negative character. They express prejudices and are always directed against “others”. The supposed “other” is thereby devalued and their own view praised.

Most people find it difficult to stand up to such soundbites, because they are often formulated in such a way that they have an absolute and unchallengeable claim. The idea can quickly arise that certain specialist knowledge is necessary to be able to refute such talk in pubs.

Ten strategies to argue against stereotypical slogans

(example: “Foreigners are stealing our jobs!”)

1. Ask a question: “Do you know someone to whom this has happened? Where did you hear this statement?”
2. Background knowledge: “Applicants with foreign-sounding names generally have a harder time getting a job, according to a study.”
3. Irony: “Oh, really? I didn’t know you used to own a kebab shop!”
4. Point out contradictions: “It’s more the case that many locals don’t want the jobs, and that’s why migrants are taking them.”
5. Break up the “they”: “Do you mean foreigners or people from a migration background? That would be 20% of all people living here. Maybe someone in your family came from another country themselves.”
6. Addressing emotions: “What’s wrong with you today? Why are you so upset? I don’t recognise you like this.”
7. Express first-person messages and feelings: “When you say that all foreigners are taking our jobs, it makes me angry because I don’t think anyone who tries to get a job should be judged.”
8. Own experience: “I know someone who fled here a few years ago and successfully started a company. He even asked me if I would like to work there.”
9. Seek support: “Does anyone else have a different opinion on this? Or have any of you had different experiences?”
10. The “soft wall”. This is mainly for self-protection, it can buy time and directly involve the emotional component. The wall is “soft” because, despite a strong feeling of rejection, it is meant to be communicated non-violently: “I think the statement is completely wrong. But I don’t feel like discussing it with you right now.”

“Now it is important to have the civil courage to take a clear stand against such clumsy statements,” says Hufer.

He has developed ten simple strategies, which are rehearsed in training sessions in role-plays, so that they can be used immediately without much thought.

The main purpose of such training sessions is to create committed people who want to defend democracy with a proven method. Therefore, not only do lecturers and teachers from (adult) education and students from universities attend the sessions, but also employees of NGOs, human rights organisations and members of political associations and parties – particularly those working with marginalised groups such as refugees or the LBGT community.

The myth of Sisyphus

In citizenship education, people are always considering how they can engage those they do not yet reach. Klaus-Peter Hufer is very aware of the fact that the extremists themselves are most likely not participating in his training.

“But this is not a reason to despair. Those who attend are important multipliers who leave the training sessions to go out into their everyday lives and continue to share what they have experienced, in their families, at their workplaces. The debate continues there,” he says.

For Hufer, citizenship education has similarities with the efforts of Sisyphus – the figure from Greek mythology who had to roll a heavy stone up a mountain for no reason.

But not making an effort, he says, is an even worse option. Right-wing extremism still exists, but it has recently been combined with conspiracy theories, climate denialism and Euroscepticism.

Hufer describes an event that was massively disrupted by supporters of a right-wing party, but an elderly lady turned on the intruders, shouting: “Look how you’re behaving! Didn’t you have any childhood education at all? Sit down and keep quiet!”

This, for Hufer, is an example of standing up resolutely and courageously against undemocratic, destructive behaviour.

One risk is that, when arguing against racist or fake information, you run the risk of appearing stereotypical and arrogant.

This self-sensitisation is also addressed in the training sessions: everyone is sometimes liable to over-simplify and express prejudice. It is important to constantly check yourself.

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Michael Sommer (PhD) is an ELM magazine editorial board member. He was the editor of the German magazine "Erwachsenenbildung" (until 2021) and works as a project developer for the Akademie Klausenhof. Email: sommer(at) Show all articles by Michael Sommer
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