Freedom in an age of prohibition

Tuesday 6 November, 18:0019:30, University of Applied Sciences Europe, Dessauer Str. 3-5, 10963, BerlinBattle of Ideas Europe

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This session is part of Battle of Ideas Berlin.  Entry is free.  More details at MeetUp

As citizens, we in Germany enjoy freedom of action. According to basic law, our right to a self-determined life can only be restricted if our actions violate the rights of others. But the scope for interpretation is shown by the disputes over alcohol consumption in our local transport systems, barbecues in parks or smoking in public places.

A journalist, writing for Die Welt, recently complained that beer drinking in Berlin’s underground trains had become an integral part of the city, despite the existing alcohol ban. The ban could only be enforced if a law, similar to the 2007 smoking law protecting non-smokers, was finally introduced.

There are increasing complaints that too many people do not abide by regulations. But is it true that drinking violates the rights of fellow commuters? Does the use of public transport not always require a certain degree of tolerance? There is no lack of potentially disturbing phenomena: mobile phones, loud conversations, dogs, a variety of odours, penetrating glances, inappropriate remarks, and more. Where does one person’s right to enjoyment, free development or relaxed informality end and another person’s right to peace and protection begin?

While most people would agree that alcohol is part of Berlin’s ‘attitude to life’, which is why prohibitions have never been able to establish themselves, the debate as to where tolerance should end continues. ‘Every spring the same thing: the debate about barbecues in parks’, Tagesspiegel reported in May, after the fire brigade and the police had stopped the grilling of 12 sheep on a barbecue site in a public garden, despite the fact that similar events had taken place in previous years. Is it true that stricter controls are needed because Berlin is growing, as some have concluded? Or are we developing a thin-skinned culture? Is the desire for prohibitions growing, while the ideal of individual freedom is losing importance?

The claim that the various bans are needed to protect citizens has been disputed. Smokers’ initiatives and other campaigners claim that they are more about regulating undesirable behaviour than about health and safety. The protests following the announcement that smoking would be permitted in designated areas in some train stations, those with an open roof, seem to support this view. Berliner Zeitung spoke of a ‘capitulation to smokers’ instead of seeing it as an imperative of tolerance.

Are we moving towards a society that will tolerate only activities deemed unproblematic, that is, will not disturb anyone? Or is it true that civility and consideration are fading? Are we losing our ability to compromise with each other? Who are the drivers of this development and what are its causes?