Usually, I roll my eyes when people - and let’s face it mostly man - explain me the meaning of a word, showing of their knowledge of the Latin language.
You know, I am a language Fan. I like words and well-spoken speeches; I like melodic texts and I truly like when people know what they say. When every single word was consciously chosen.
My husband is a communication advisor. This might be the ultimatum proof: I am in love with good language.
But sometimes this Latin-meaning-reminder really does not help, because language is such a fluid cultural phenomenon, words evolve and change their meanings - relative to their historic and political context.
A good example for that is the word “populism”. Despite diverse options and scientific approaches many people agree that populism today is anti-pluralistic, anti-elitist, anti-scientific and therefore rather alien to a liberal democracy.
Let’s put it like this: When I say the word “populist” I do not mean anything good.
But you won’t believe on how many events I have spoken, where elderly man approached me afterwards explaining me the origin of the word “populism” as something truly positive.
“POPULUS”, they explain, has to do with the people, and being close to the people cannot be something bad, can it?
Even though I usually roll my eyes when Latin origins are digged out to spark a controversy in today’s political discussions, I will do exactly that myself now and you are all allowed to roll your eyes at me:
The word “possible”, originally comes from the word possibilis, which itself comes from the word possum, meaning power or to master something.
I was happy to learn this, because I think possibilities have a lot to do with power. And I think we should talk more about power.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, power can be defined as the ability to control, it can be defined as strength or as the legal right to do something.
I would like to add a fourth definition: Power is the ability to make a difference.
Marry Barra is powerful, because she is the CEO of Gerneral Motors, the largest car manufacturer in the world. Her decisions change the life of about 200 thousand workers and possibly of the global market.
Christine Lagarde is powerful, because she is the president of the European central bank. Her decisions heavily influence the course of the second largest economy in the word: Europe.
Rosa Parks was powerful. Because she and her fellows carefully planned clever political art which gave a huge boost to the civil rights movement. Thousands of schools are named after her, until today.
Greta Thunberg is powerful, because as a sixteen-year-old girl she sparked the greatest mass protest among children and youth, the world has ever seem, changing political agendas and consequently shifting budgets.
But it is not only individuals who have the ability to make a difference. Greta Thunberg started a social movement, that as a brand is powerful from small regional chapters to a worldwide shared list of demands.
The woman of Iran and their fellow male demonstrators are powerful. It’s not a single face or name that due to money or office makes change possible. It’s the sheer mass and motivation of thousands of people.
The magic word for his phenomena is: alliances.
Some historians and political scientists argue that Germany has not been in a situation like the one we are having now, since the second world war.
We are not facing one crisis, that challenges us, our plans and wealth, but we are finding ourselves in a bundle of multiple crises that are interwoven into one another and confronts us with the need to change things fundamentally.
The way we live, consume, produce, travel and build is harmful to our own future.
The way we live is creating heavy costs that we do not pay. Instead, poor people elsewhere on the planet pay that prices, the nature does or future generations do.
The way we governed was based on wrong assumptions. It was based upon the assumption that making ourself heavily dependent on an anti-democratic dictator is okay.
We or let’s say the government we elected chose wealth over security, by agreeing to cheap gas from Russia despite Eastern European and American warnings.
And again, mostly other people pay a high price for this decision.
We are finding ourselves in a time of great changes. Some of them have already begun, others are supposed to be starting soon. We call them “Zeitenwende” and we call them “Transformation”.
I say it is a good thing that these fundamental changes are finally taking place. They are overdue.
But in relation to the urgent need of fundamental changes, I think that the ones who have a lot of power are not held responsible enough to take those brave steps.
Power can be misused, it always, always comes along with responsibility.
Part of this responsibility is officially given, sometimes even written down, like in job descriptions or inaugurations.
But there is another part of power responsibility that we kind of define ourselves. Our own moral compass, our cultural socialization decides upon how we deal with it.
In 2021, our Constitutional Court reminded the government that they have a responsibility to future generations. They ruled in favor of plaintiffs who said that the Climate Protection Act did not go far enough.
I wonder if we need more of those responsibility reminders. Maybe that is a too gentle description, and I should say: People with power should be committed to responsibility. Because we are deep down in various major crises.
The good news is: we know the way out, we have enough knowledge, money and skill to get out of this: we need to hold people of power responsible, to decide in favor of future-oriented solutions.
Solutions that do not make other people pay, but us.
Solutions that give highest priority to climate-friendliness and social cohesion.
Solutions that are democratic.
These people, institutions, firms and movements in power are not far away, detached from us. Anyone telling you that, uses a “populist” argument.
This power to make a difference is everywhere!
It lies in every new entrepreneurship, in every vote, in every heartful encounter, that is not about superficial things but about questions that really touch us.
And here I believe lies our responsibility. I assume that the great majority of us here in the room can agree to be quite privileged.
- in a way that we grew up in a democracy, where we enjoy a whole range of freedom rights,
- in a way that we grew up without having fear, fear of being persecuted, fear of having not enough to survive
- and in a way that we can choose who we want to be.
Each and every single one of us here in Europe can choose who we vote for, we can normally choose what we learn or study, we can decide whether we spend some of our time in a social engagement or not.
I do not think that the weight of the world is lying on individuals.
I do not think that individuals are to blame when something is going wrong.
But I am an unwavering believer that individuals can make a difference once they unite. Again: Building alliances are the magic words.
We as individuals (especially as privileged ones) have the possibility - and that means the power to make a difference.
The best way to make a difference in the midst of various crisis, is to unite with others. And here is a short little guide on how to do this:
Uniting and forming alliances always means to go into deep discussion about fundamental world views first.
You need to be ok with each other on fundamental principles and values. Once you checked and discussed that, do not open that box of Pandora again, unless you must!
The next step is to agree upon one political goal. There may be subgoals or a whole list of concrete measures you ask for, but do unite under one goal that all alliance partners can agree upon.
The subgoals are as important as the big one. Why? Because if your main goal is “Climate crises to be defeated, a healthy planet” there might be a good chance that you in your life time will never actually join the party that celebrates the success.
But successes are very important for alliances, because they build upon the motivation of the people joining. So do set yourself milestones and subgoals and congratulate each other once you met one of them.
Next hint: Be diverse! When Fridays for Future and the large worker unions joined an alliance together they found out how different they were, how different they worked. That is not a weakness. That is their strength!
While Fridays for Future needs about 12 hours to get a democratic decisions from around 100 regional chapters and can say: okay, we are ready to go with the campaign, the workers union goes: Um… well our next board meeting is…let me look it up…on November 21st!
On the other hand, the workers union’s resources are huge: they have brilliant political and press contacts, they have money and knowledge and the capacity to chip in many things well needed for a demonstration or a strategy paper alike.
So, intersectionality, difference in working structures etc. are - if wisely used - a strength.
These are just a few out of many hints, we wrote down in one of our studies called “Allianzen des Fortschritts”. The study is currently translated into English.
I am a 100% convinced: This is the time to look who and what you want to support. Join forces, use your power, there are way too many good examples out there for positive progress, for success, so do not believe that engagement wouldn’t make sense.
Yes, we are in what we call the Poly-Crises.
Yes, the climate catastrophe is happening,
Yes, there is a global food disaster going on and
Yes, Europe as the continent with a successful over-70-year- peace-story, needs to change its narrative.
… But: Power is the ability to make a difference, to change the course, to set an example.
You all can be part of that constructive, that responsible power. Us it well. Thank you.
Speech at the Female Founders Night | 14.10.2022 | Paulina Fröhlich
Paula Fröhlich is Head of "Resilient democracy" at the "Progressive Center". There she designs dialogue and discourse spaces, leads the European democracy conference "Innocracy" . After studying geography, Islamic studies, and water management, Paulina co-founded the Little Five initiative, which supports people in using "radical civility" to take action against right-wing populism.