Keynote am internationalen IDEA Kongress „Changes Challenges Choices“ (englisch)


I was born in 1985 at a time when globalization really took off. The world grew together, which on the one hand led to growing prosperity and on the other hand provoked wild protests, mainly from left-winged groups.

I myself have always experienced the world growing together as a good thing: national borders have never been important in my life, and recent events have shown how grateful you have to be for that. I am an Austrian, I am living in Germany for six years, my sister married a Dutchman, the stage designer I am currently working with is French, I feel as an European.

Xenophobia and nationalism always seemed to me as something that sucks – but would not endanger the broad agreement of a large majority: that overcoming national borders is something good, especially regarding the European Union. The Brexit was a shock to me and many others.

Only a year before that, everything seemed to be quite different: when hundreds of Asylum seekers arrived at Munich’s main station during the so called „refugee crisis“, I was surprised, impressed and proud of this city, and of the European Union. As it turned out, I was wrong about that.

By the beginning of 2016 something changed. It began with the new years eve of Cologne and the assaults of Muslim men on women, which were not mentioned by the media for several days. That strengthened an increasing mistrust in quality media, which certainly is one of the reasons for the upswing of the right-wing parties.

Different media have always had different points of view – Austrians have had painful experiences with the „Kronen Zeitung“ for a very long time now. But looking at all the media together, they have never been distrusted to present a pluralistic image of public opinion. Maybe this is changing right now.

Many people today only read the news they are offered in social media, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. – a phenomenon that been referred to as „Filter bubbles“. Many online media are strongly opinion-forming and promote nationalism and xenophobia. They deny climate change or bring false horror stories about immigrants. The „Kronen Zeitung“ seems harmless to me, compared to that.

The term „fake news“ was supposed to draw attention to such lies. But meanwhile, the accusation of being „fake news“ is used against its creators, the quality media: The new US president rejects the majority of critical reports as „Fake News“. Moreover, critical journalists can not ask questions at his press conferences any more or are completely excluded from them. Press freedom also is at stake in Turkey, Poland and many other countries, where you wouldn´t have expected it only a few years from now.

On the other hand, studies show, that media such as the New York Times, as well as quality media in Germany, are experiencing a large increase in readers and growing trust by their readers.

Given all that, I believe there is a dividing in the perception of the world, and it is deepening.

This is also due to the fact that we also have our „filter bubbles“ by informing ourselves from quality media only. Theatre might be the largest filter bubble of all, as I feel I strongly remain among myselves in my work. Being with you is also a way of looking beyond these boundaries for me – although of course we also share many beliefs and attitudes.

I decided a few weeks ago to subscribe the leader of the right-winged FPÖ and the right-wing grouping of the „Identitären“ on Facebook. Since then, I get a sense of how the shape of the world is being presented to many people.

I believe that this changing media landscape was one of the reasons why the so-called „Willkommenskultur“, the open minded attitude towards migrants, was increasingly replaced by the impression of a mainly negative attitude towards migration.

We do not know if this negative attitude is existing in the majority society. There are data that imply the opposite: where people live together with asylum seekers, the rates of consent are consistently higher than in those areas where you only „read“ about them.

There have been numerous terrorist attacks in the European Union over the last 12 months, including Nice, Brussels, Berlin, London, and sadly also during this congress in Stockholm. These attacks are an attempt to influence public opinion. They are an attempt to deepen the dividing between „natives“ and „strangers“. They are an attempt to break a community apart. The calm reaction of the inhabitants of the affected cities, who didn´t allow the attacks to compromise their daily live routines, gives hope that these attempts has not yet been successful.

But you could also get a different impression: In social media, so-called „Wllkommensklatscher“ and „Gutmenschen“, people who supported migrants, have been accused to be guilty for the attacks, there are warnings of a „Gefährdung des Abendlandes“ („threat to the West“) or a „Kampf der Zivilisationen“ („struggle of civilizations“).

But who is this „other“ part of our society that proclaims these things? In the recent months, there has been much talk about members of a middle class who feel they are losers of globalization and no longer feel represented by the existing parties and the media. The election victory of Donald Trump was explained by the fact that he had succeeded in addressing these people and bringing them to vote.

The right-wing populist Norbert Hofer won first place in the first round of the Austrian presidential elections and was elected by almost half of the Austrians in the second round.

In the recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Geert Wilders did not win – but the opposing candidate Mark Rutte had already taken over so many positions that you can´t really speak of a victory against right-wing populism.

Recent statements made by Austrian chancellor Christian Kern on not wanting to relocate migrants from Italy as has been promised to the EU members, make him sound like a member of a right winged party.

In France, Marine le Pen is being on first place in surveys for the first round of presidential elections since several months.

Right-wing political parties have success with their programs – whether it be elections, or the setting of topics being taken over by political competitors.

They succeeded in starting a trend to return to national thinking. Globalization, however, has already been slowed down before the rise of the right-wing parties. It was the financial crisis in 2008, which slowed down a phase of closer cooperation and growing growth. Since then, all political efforts seemed to be aimed at restoring the state before: economic programs, zero interest rates, bond purchases, free trade agreements – all of this aimed at more Globalization, leading to more economic growth. But that just seems to change. Thinking nationally has been thought of a barrier to progress for a long time. Today it is no longer a taboo to take care of the „own people“ first.

With the slogan „America first“, Donald Trump won his election campaign. The criticism of globalization seems to have moved from left to right. Thinking global seems to lose importance.

After the success of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the US government is thinking about dropping out again. But also European countries lack of putting it into practice. Only this weekend it was announced that Germany has already consumed its „permitted“ amount of CO2 emissions for 2017.

While I was travelling to this congress, I came across a recent statement of a political scientist about Globalization: „The idea that cooperation creates a win-win situation, which is beneficial for all, is currently being replaced by the idea of the world as a zero-sum game: One wins, another must lose.“

I believe this discribes a changing public opinion which is just happening. Perhaps we are witnessing the end of a world growing together. Maybe the slowdown of globalization will be lasting.

What can theatre provide these days? During the refugee crises many institutions chose to act, they got involved with the accommodation and supply of refugees, hosted public debates – and of course started an artistic process.

In her drama „Die Schutzbefohlenen“, Elfriede Jelinek lent her voice to a chorus of refugees and combined it with motives from Aischylos „Die Schutzbehohlenen“ („The Supplients“).

On April 14th, a group of right-wing extremists assaulted a performance of the „Supplients“ in the Audimax of the University of Vienna. They squirted fake blood into the audience and threw leaflets saying „Multikulti tötet“ („multicultural kills“). Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were performing on stage. As disgusting it is to attack traumatised people in this way, ironically it encoured my thinking about theatre as an institution: Obviously it is being taken very seriously from right winged persons. The group itself called their action an „asthetic intervention“ and adopted the asthetics of performing arts. Now who would still say, theatre isn´t politically relevant these days?

Theatre can be a media that allows us to think about our society. „The Supplients“ is an example for a contemporary drama text – but it is also possible to make a statement about the present situation through classical plays. This thesis we have been examining together in the last days, on the basis of William Shakespeare’s „Romeo and Juliet“.

The play is about two clans, who are fighting each other and therefore make the love of their children impossible. For me the central question was: What divides our society as deeply as the hatred between Montegues and Capulets?

Today I talked a lot about a divided society. Nevertheless, the conflict line in my interpretation of Romeo and Juliet did not run between left and right. That is because I can´t see a fight between left and right in our society. I see ignorance and disinterest in the other. Until the election of Donald Trump we did not even know that „the others“ even exist. I believe, that those who have caused the Brexit, those who are responsible for the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, they do not see themselves threatened in their existence by us, a well-educated, cultural working upper class. They found different concepts of the enemy: refugees, for example.

With my interpretation of „Romeo and Juliet“, I tried to point out that their anger is directed to the wrong. I interpretated the Capulets as representatives of the rich and super-rich and the Montegues as a part of the majority society. Since the financial crises of 2008, the gap between rich and poor has spread even further. It was the majority society that suffered from it, not the elites. Studies prove that the rich have become even richer. Year by year, tax escape costs us multiple amounts of what it costs to care for refugees.

But, of course, it´s easier to make refugees responsible for disadvantages than Caribbean tax shelters. And maybe that is the weak point of my interpretation, coming to the point where one would like to hear options of taking action. Who is the one percent nowadays? Where are the Capulets today, and how can we resist them?

At this point, I would like to remind you of something Armin said during his keynote at the opening of this congress, that really struck me: I might not be able to change the system. I might not be able to fight Nestle. But I can change my way of participating in the world every day, my fellow human beings, my entire environment.

Perhaps we can not prevent national states from regaining. Perhaps we can not prevent European borders being closed again. But we must not stop to think and act globally in our everyday life. This concerns our consumption, our handling of resources. This also includes sharing our believs with our fellow human beings.

I can choose to spend more money on food, to reduce its ecological impact. I can choose to rethink travelling by car or airplanes. I can choose to engage myself in the work of integrating migrants. I can choose not to order at Amazon. I can choose to consume media that is outside my „filterbubble“. I can choose how I want to interact with my children and also other children, actually every other fellow human being. I can choose to talk to people outside of my usual environment.

Many of you are teachers, and I honestly admire you for your courage to have chosen this job, that is so important to our children and therefor the development of our society. You can affect so many.

I do believe that theatre can also be a way to affect people, whether in the amateur theater, in the educational work, or by showing a politically relevant play.

So let´s carry on with it.

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