“The future is uncertain, and analysis of just one scenario does little to communicate much about the range of opportunities and challenges liable to confront us."
United Nations Development Program on Foresight Methodologies
In a time considered as the “post-factual” or “post-truth age”, the process of opinion-making in societies must be observed with scrutiny. If otherwise, one follows the definition of the Oxford Dictionary, the history of mankind could be described as “post-truth”: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“.
End time scenarios can create such circumstances. They have accompanied mankind since the first religion emerged, throughout the middle ages until today and have been used for political agitation. The Russian philosopher Plekhanov coined the term “agitation” (which was later adapted by Lenin): agitation limits itself to one or very few ideas but conveys them to huge numbers of people.
Doomsday scenarios have proven to be a powerful tool for agitation because they can be of political, economic, social, cultural, religious or ecological nature. They are an effective instrument of agitation because they appeal to deep-rooted fears by posing a threat to human identity or even existence. This threat appears too vague, complex and significant to be fully understood and addressed alone. Consequently, the desire rises to follow ‘leaders’ and share their political beliefs. So, with the intention of mobilizing the people and to prevent the individual from making informed decisions, some movements make use of apocalyptical scenarios in a political, cultural, economic or ecological context. Nowadays, where movements spread wider and quicker and, in some cases, tend to radicalize people, this topic proves more relevant than ever. In recent history, environmental movements can be cited as an example when it comes to using extreme future scenarios as an instrument of political agitation. Sometimes this intention can be recognized solely through the movement's name such as “Extinction Rebellion” which stands in stark contrast to the peaceful “Fridays for Future” demonstrations.
Whereas the current discussion about post-truth politics often revolves around misrepresentation and even denial of facts, this research project takes a different approach by placing the problem in a socio-cultural context.
Therefore, I first want to find out how “doomsday scenarios” are being used to create a social climate in which emotions are more important than truthful facts. The second step is to explain why the stoking up of fears in society through end time scenarios is so 'successful' as an instrument for agitation and how a differentiated social debate can be diminished. Finally, this understanding is used to develop concepts, which can then be applied to political education. Those concepts aim to explain the mechanisms of end time scenarios as a means of agitation in order to sharpen critical awareness and to strengthen a responsible approach in political discussions.
Since these three research questions, especially in that combination, have hardly been investigated in academia the project could generate a research contribution.
To achieve this, an interdisciplinary approach is required. Besides the obvious disciplines of history and politics, I strive to establish links with psychology, social psychology, and sociology as well as communication and educational sciences. Especially, when it comes to understanding and addressing current societal developments, the findings of environmental humanities as a cross-disciplinary approach will provide a basis for analysis. I want to find patterns in the past and translate them into recommendations for the future. Therefore, I want to follow two paths: One that considers events, e.g. in the context of environmental history, and finds similarities and parallels between them to deepen the understanding of doomsday scenarios as a tool of political agitation. This will probably cover two-thirds of the project time. And one that considers the relevance of these scenarios today and shows how an awareness of them can be developed in political education. This phase is likely to take up the last third of the project.
Two methodological approaches follow from this: A descriptive or inductive branch and a design approach to derive recommendations for political education. The second aspect cannot be completely foreseen at this early stage of the project, as it is based on the findings of the first phase. Nevertheless, structured interviews with education experts will probably be an important research tool in this phase. In the first phase of the project, in order to create a basic understanding of the research questions, the qualitative content analysis of primary sources, in particular, the text analysis of interviews, speeches and scripted programs, is an indispensable research method in addition to studying literature, e.g. on the history of social movements. This does not exclude that methods of quantitative empirical social research may also be applied, e.g. to explain the ‘success’ of end time scenarios in different cultural contexts.
My goal is to use what can be learned from past examples of political agitation and apply it to our current situation. There is a young generation afraid of what their future looks like. This makes people susceptible to political agitation and thus democracies vulnerable. If we understand how “opinions are made”, how movements are created, we could have another way of approaching politics and reasonable problem solving on a global scale: By filtering out some key elements that should be worked into political education this generation would have a chance to approach problems in the future critically, independent, informed and based on reason, to take responsibility for the future in the sense of the introductory quote.