A different approach to upsetting news – Take away their demolition power – The glass is half full, not half empty

This morning, a German news story popped up. The report informs about the plans of Hungary‘s right-wing political party „Fidesz“ to institutionalize further discrimination against members of the LGBTQI-community. Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, a Member State of the European Union, has tabled a law prohibiting educational programs, and any program advertising topics related to people and communities identifying anything other than heterosexual. Homophobia enshrined into law, if successful. Chances are, it may be.

According to the „Tagesschau“-report behind the link https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/ungarn-fidesz-homosexualitaet-101.html, educational programs at school that inform and sensibilisize for the rights and needs of minority groups identifying other than heterosexual shall be prohibited. Behind the acronym LGBTQI stand all who identify as lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and intersexual. One of my beloved children would, as a consequence, be ostracized if being educated in Hungary. I dare say I am proud of the exceptionally human educational system of the country where they are being educated. They grow up in a country where they are encouraged to freely identify as whoever they feel they are.

Not in Hungary, or elsewhere where xenophobia and chauvinism continue to take alarming roots, in the middle of the European Union. Let me be clear: We have this everywhere, including in Germany. But a draft law planning to prohibit books, films, and other „content“, aiming at children and juveniles with the intent to prohibit depicting any form of sexuality deviating from heterosexuality, that is entirely another level of erosion of values based on democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human and individual values. I hope that there will be a strong reaction from Brussels. But the mere fact that such an attempt is made is deeply alarming.

As often, this report falls into the category of news which deeply upset me, make me sad, angry, resentful. There are many bits and pieces of such news in my draft folder. They relate to what happens with Muslim minorities in Myanmar, ethnic and religious minority groups in China, including reports about Chinese authorities forcefully subjecting members of that minority group to training Artificial Intelligence software to identify emotions on their faces, with even Microsoft ringing the alarm bells of Orwell‘s „1984“ taken to the the power of 2. My draft folder includes reports about widespread sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and rape, on a broad basis, perpetrators being Afghan Police commanders, victims being female Afghan police officers.

I could go on and on. Of course, the world is chock full with news like these. And these stories need to be told, as this is one vital precondition to act. „AAA“ stands for Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. All three terms are equally relevant.

But from personal experience I know what these stories do: Some people get numb. Some people get cynical. Some people get into a constant spiral of being upset. On the other side of the aisle, these stories positively feed the xenophobia and hate and intolerance of those who have already been caught in the webs of those pied pipers who appear to be a staple of contemporary times.

I name them pied pipers. They thrive off antagonisation. Many of them for ideological reasons. Some of them, including Nr 45 in the U.S., taking this method to the ultimate extreme: They don‘t care about content at all, they only care for the principle of always raising the stakes of antagonisation. This I will try to analyse in a future blog entry, because this method is both simple and complex, and there are people around who have copied this from Nr. 45. Mechanically it is simple: Just respond to anything with radical antagonisation. Psychologically, it is complex: Systematic gaslighting is including that one gaslights oneself. I have written about it here.

But what to do when everything is aimed at making you angry, because this in itself is the aim of the exercise? Does it mean one either becomes a „useful idiot“, as Lenin put it, by angrily responding (and thus doing exactly what the other side intended), or shutting up and thus becoming a member of the group of „silent lambs“? Does it lead to ever more resignation and the feeling of helplessness, harboring deep-seated resentment?

I believe there could be another path: Every story told about the cold heartless business of eroding hard-fought-for values should be accompanied by a story of hope, a profoundly positive story.

So I try this here.

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Two days ago, I came back to Serbia after a stay in Germany and another stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I was timing my arrival, because my second Covid-19-vaccination was due this weekend.

Here is my story about how I got vaccinated in Serbia:

As a consequence of policy decisions, Serbia had secured considerable amounts of vaccines early on, whether Sinopharm, Sputnik, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, whatever. In difference to neighboring States in the region, and also in difference to, for example Germany, they had a large supply early on. Serbia‘s fast vaccination campaign got noticed internationally.

At the same time when own citizens began to receive their first shots (and not after), the Serbian government started to provide vaccines to the international diplomatic community in Serbia, but they wouldn’t stop there: A week or so after they had opened the possibility to get vaccinated to diplomatic missions, my landlord called me and said she had just watched the announcement on TV that the government was offering vaccines to anyone, including foreigners, as long as one had a foreign ID card and a Serbian phone number.

Mid March, on a Saturday morning, I traveled to the largest vaccination site on the Belgrade Fair compound. I approached a security guard, politely asking whether the information that I could get a shot as a foreigner with no residence in Serbia, would be correct. The guard went in, and came out a minute later with a young staffer, who introduced himself as „Ivan“. In the most friendly manner I have come across, Ivan took me through all registration, helped me arrive at the cubicle with a sign „AstraZeneca“ on it, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the fair I got my first vaccine shot. Ivan accompanied me to the rest area, we had a blast of small talk, and brought me back to the exit of the fair. We parted not without having exchanged contact details before. Since then, Ivan and I exchanged a few mails and planned on having a coffee at the latest when my second shot would be due, after 12 weeks.

Of course, this extraordinary experience made me so grateful. And this gratitude for a most personal experience of kindness also remained throughout the following weeks, when Serbia got credited for this unbuerocratic handling, when many people from neighboring countries of the Western Balkans, and even „vaccine tourists“ form EU countries, arrived at the Belgrade Fair. The public discussion included comments that this also could be seen as a smart public relations move by the Government. All reasonable, but the personal kindness was not an exception and went way beyond what could be named „professional courtesy“, and I heard of it many times.

Now, 11 weeks later I was in Sarajevo, preparing to come back to Belgrade, anticipating an eMail notifying me about my second appointment. With precision, I got this mail, and a text message on my phone. But before that, I received a mail from Ivan.

Ivan had noted the second vaccination date. He offered to help me again. Which I found more than kind, it was „super considerate“. So, two days ago, I met Ivan again. At the Belgrade Fair. And like the first time, I was met with most friendly staff all over the vaccination site, taking me through the second round of vaccination. After which, Ivan and I had planned to have a coffee.

On the way to the coffee place, Ivan greeted a friend, Marco. Friendly and outgoing like Ivan, I got into a conversation with Marco. This led to literally two hours of intense and wonderful time over several coffees, with both Ivan and Marco. Because, as it turned out, Marco had a story to tell which I also wanted to hear in its entirety.

Both Ivan and Marco are youth workers, engaged in supporting meaningful activities for young people. Ivan in Belgrade, Marco as part of a regional non-governmental organization operating in all six jurisdictions of the Western Balkans. As an NGO, I learned, they had gotten international recognition for their work on helping young people all over the Western Balkans, including in reconciling with the divisions which form part of the legacy of conflict and war.

I need to keep it short here, because this blog entry is already one of the longer ones. The work of this NGO will be subject to future blog entries anyway, as soon as I have learned more. But I already know that young people here are fighters for the future of the values that we sometimes feel others are eroding. The point which I want to make here: By chance, and simply because I was curious and open-minded, I learned about what young people here in this region of the world do in order to overcome pre-occupations, divisive nationalist language, and hate. They promote tolerance. They operate truly regional, stay out of politics, and emphasize their pride of being truly multi-ethnic.

They are the present, and the future here, so their stories need to be told. These others, including some pied pipers, those who try to control the news cycle, they may be part of the past, and not knowing it, yet. Telling positive stories, sometimes small, sometimes large, always wonderful, that may help.

Ivan, Marco, and I, we plan a dinner next week. I am going to ask them what they do in terms of LGBTQI rights, and their promotion. I am sure we are going to have another blast of a good conversation.

Which helps me a lot when I see bad news, next time.

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