Architecture is an expression of values. Norman Foster

Quidam dicunt

“Some say” – A Latin introduction to a specific argument and how it came to shape our culture of debate.

We live in a day and age that is dominated by the “There’s no law against me saying this” argument. Here in Germany, people like Thilo Sarrazin or the founder of the Alternative for Germany party, Bernd Lucke, are driving this mantra and portraying themselves as alternatives to the mainstream: bold upstream swimmers. But here’s what they fail to realize: In Germany, everybody’s allowed to say anything he or she wants to.

Yet, while freedom of expression is held up high, we Germans fail to discuss and debate amongst ourselves – largely because we entrench ourselves in our close and narrow circles in which only the opinion we want to hear is voiced. This has led to the paradox of our time: We live in an age that is fertile ground for pluralism but remain mentally isolated as never before. The constructive culture of dialogue and discourse is on its deathbed.

When diversity was still considered an evil and people were cautious about their every word, there was one ploy that could drive a discussion or spark debate: “Quidam dicunt”, as the theologians and philosophers of the time put it, or “some say”, as we do today. By referring to “some”, they made it clear that the argument that was about to follow did not necessarily reflect their personal opinions but that of an unspecified group of people. In this way, they could position themselves against the religious and secular authorities without being directly in the firing line, and focus on arguments that were not officially allowed to be put forth.

Resentments don’t foster dialogue

If you say something nowadays against quotas in the gender quota debate, you will be taken down before you have even begun to argue. If you don’t let it be known that it is your argument that is to follow – if you begin, rather, with “some say” – maybe you will reach the end of your sentence. If it worked in the Dark Ages, it will surely work with our minority-sensitive women. Or in any other context in which you can work in “quidam dicunt” at your discretion. For example, some say that there is still a long way to go until Islam really belongs in Europe. Some say that we have no choice but to stand up against Russia. Some say that electricity in Bavaria doesn’t come from the sockets but from power lines in the north. Some say that fifty years from now, we will no longer be able to save our economy through car sales.

You’re allowed to say anything, but woe to those who irritate someone with their opinions. What’s the difference between “some say” and “there’s no law against me saying this”? “Some say” is usually followed by an argument, while “there’s no law against me saying it” is usually followed by some sort of resentment. Resentments don’t foster dialogue; arguments do.

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