Logo: Strike a Light by Rob Howard under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
by Holger Marcks
When it comes to change in social environments, a parable of philosopher Charles Handy gets pulled out quickly. If you drop a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately; but placed in cold water slowly warming up, it acclimates itself and falls to sleep, unaware of being boiled alive. The parable reminds us of the perceptional relativity of change: Within communities creeping developments cause habituation, abrupt breaks an arousing shock. In terms of social movements this truism becomes apparent in a double way: On the one hand, erupting crises may destabilize social orders and create the necessary space for dissident actors to gain momentum – while they would fail to mobilize outside the scenario of an anxious community gasping for a new guarantor of order. On the other hand, the rise of a dissident actor with unconventional performances may work as a shock triggering withdrawal reflexes in the broader society – while dissidents with relative habitual sentiments can find resonance in communities disappointed by the ruling order.
Does this perspective offer a potential to explain the rise of far right movements in Europe? Let’s examine it by the example of Germany where, in the last two years, far right actors have experienced a remarkable gain in political acceptance – on the streets, in the booths and in the talk shows. In this case, it could be argued that their success in protest and electoral mobilizations as well as their disproportionate high presence in the media rests on communication politics that effect a normalization of far right positions previously disreputed in public discourse. Through this creeping habituation by society, they are able to gain momentum in situations of crisis, producing themselves successfully as a legitimate agent of the “anxious citizens” disappointed by the government. To test this little argument, a finger exercise in frame analysis seems to be proper, a tool common in social movement studies to explain why certain ideas in certain contexts are potent to mobilize audiences – and are not in others.