You are valued. You’re strong. Statements like these are important. Especially when you feel small. Perhaps because you’ve been the victim of hate speech online. You can fight negativity with love. That’s exactly what "Gesicht Zeigen!" (Show your face) is out to prove.
For 20 years now, the German initiative "Gesicht Zeigen!" has been working to ensure Germany remains a liberal, open society. In this interview, Sophia Oppermann, director of "Gesicht Zeigen!", explains what sets the association apart from others, what love speech is all about, and how important partnerships are.
It’s never too soon
What is the goal of "Gesicht Zeigen!"? What are you fighting for?
Sophia Oppermann: For the last 20 years, we have been actively engaged in combating farright extremism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and racism. We offer a large number of low-threshold pedagogical projects, for example, where we work together very closely with school students. The earlier you start exposing young people to a positive image of humanity based on equal rights, the more effectively you can prevent them falling prey to negative ideas.
How it all began
What motivated you to found the "Gesicht Zeigen!" initiative?
Sophia Oppermann: We launched in 2000. At that time, there had been an extremely large number of right-wing attacks. We wanted to do something against them and energize civil society. Our aim was to make it clear that we weren’t going to put up with such attacks anymore. After all, an absolute majority rejects and condemns this sort of thing.
Where did you go from there?
Sophia Oppermann: We made a name for ourselves mainly through our campaigns. We launched spots in movie theaters, put up posters, and have now also run many online campaigns. It is these campaigns that set us apart from other NGOs.
One of those campaigns is Love Speech. What can you tell us about that?
Sophia Oppermann: Love speech means rethinking things. It’s about opting for positive, good, and appreciative language online. The idea is not to expose yourself to online hate, for example hate speech – not even by posting counterarguments. Instead, you post positive things, reasons to treat others in a friendly way. Wherever we happen to be on the internet – whether on our own websites, on our Timeline, in WhatsApp groups, on Twitter, or on Instagram.
So, love speech is more a personal attitude than a direct reaction to hate speech, unlike counterspeech, for instance?
Sophia Oppermann: With love speech, you don’t have to expose yourself to the hate – it is something you can actively do in your own communication.
Is love speech something you can learn?
Sophia Oppermann: The Love Speech website offers plenty of tips to guide you along. If you happen to be in Berlin, you can also attend one of our workshops. To help raise public awareness for our message, we also have love-speech stickers, buttons, and tear-off notepads – compliments to go, if you like. Our postcards are especially popular, with sayings like “You are valued,” “Thanks for being here,” and “You’re strong.”
These postcards were also part of your highly acclaimed love speech packages. What exactly were these packages?
Sophia Oppermann: When people began posting about being attacked from all sides by haters, the internet was suddenly abuzz with solidarity for the victims. And that solidarity is very, very important. We sent the victims our love speech packages, which contain a letter, one of our postcards, and a box of chocolates. Everyone we sent a package to replied to us. They were all thrilled to receive it. Something like this stands out amongst the online expressions of solidarity and is never forgotten.
Hate spreads easily – dangers lurk online
Where do you see potential dangers, especially online?
Sophia Oppermann: We shouldn’t demonize the internet. But the ability to network with others can harbor dangers. If I’m having a drink with friends in my local bar, I can reach maybe five people with my ideas and opinions. Online it’s easily 50,000. What we call echo chambers are another major threat. In these communication bubbles, your own negative opinion is amplified and you are no longer confronted with contrary opinions. It is almost impossible to reach people caught in echo chambers with pedagogical offerings.
One for all, and all for respectful coexistence
Talking about networking, why is it so important to band together with others when fighting against hate online and against far-right extremism, racism, and xenophobia?
Sophia Oppermann: If you want a respectful, democratic society and want to counter right-wing extremism and racism, you can’t outsource the responsibility to an initiative. The commitment has to come from within society itself. Everyone needs to play an active role, stand up for their principles, and get involved. That’s why we constantly endeavor to have as broad a range of supporters as possible.
Who exactly are your supporters?
Sophia Oppermann: They come from all different walks of life: politicians, business leaders, and also celebrities like Iris Berben, Anja Kling, or the musician Sebastian Krumbiegel. People like this can help our message reach quite different target groups. Deutsche Telekom has been a supporter since 2009.
How can we – whether celebrity, company, or ordinary person – get involved?
Sophia Oppermann: We need to make ourselves aware of how important appreciation and esteem are. Threats, hate, and insults are on the rise, and any means, any method, is justified that helps us lend support to the victims. Our method is to spread love – as simple and as straightforward as that may sound.