Communicating the Open Society

Volker von Prittwitz


Also in the 21st century, the open society meets with hostility. The leading values and principles of an upcoming world society yet cannot be carried through only in hostile forms of interaction; they rather have to be made clear and convincingly communicated. Following this idea, the concepts open society and closed society are delineated in the text. Then possible media for communicating the open society are discussed, forms of everyday communication, symbols, religion and analysis.


Die offene Gesellschaft vermitteln

Volker von Prittwitz


Auch im 21. Jahrhundert stößt die offene Gesellschaft auf Feindschaft. Die Leitwerte und Verfahrensprinzipien einer sich bildenden Weltgesellschaft lassen sich allerdings nicht nur in feindlichen Interaktionsformen durchsetzen. Vielmehr müssen sie deutlich gemacht und überzeugend vertreten werden. Dieser Leitidee folgend werden im Text die Konzepte der offenen und der geschlossenen Gesellschaft skizziert. Dann werden mögliche Kommunikationsmedien der offenen Gesellschaft diskutiert: Formen der Alltagskommunikation, Symbole, Religion und Analyse.


1. Introduction

Also in the 21. century, the open society including democracy meets with hostility. In particular, the confrontation between islamist terrorism and states in war on terrorism produces an enduring war-like situation. Leading values and principles of the upcoming world society yet cannot be put through only in hostile forms of interaction. They rather have to be made clear and convincingly communicated also in intercultural dialogues. Starting points of this discussion are the terms open society and closed society.


1.1 The open society

The concept open society is tightly linked with Karl Popper’s book The open society and its enemies, written in confrontation with totalitarian thinking (Popper 1945/2003). Following this concept, a society can be called open if it interpretes history not as strictly predetermined by magic, divine will, fate or historical necessities but tries to meet challenges actively. In this concept, procedural openness of results and procedural openness of action are interlocked with each other: Those who consider historical processes to be open will try or recommend to have an active impact on them. And those who know that aimed action can influence processes will give up the idea of strictly predeterminated historical processes.

Procedural openness in this double sense corresponds with plurality: Only in a plural society, social differences and conflicts are accepted as a regular basis of the political process, and sociopolitical change is interpreted to be regular.

This plurality has some preconditions: 1) Socio-economic capabilities are distributed amongst the entire society (Vanhanen 1997). 2) Values of freedom and emancipation have come up (Welzel 2002). 3) Democracy, that is effective and bound governance (bound to civil and political rights of the people), does exist. That’s why patterns of the open society and vivid democracy correspond with each other: Open societal structures foster democracy and democracy fosters the open society.

Finally, an open society has relatively open frontiers. Consequently, it is able and willing to communicate with other (strange) individuals and communities. These contacts widen the societal horizon and enable learning also from different cultures and opinions - a potential for qualitative evolution and an increase of power. On the other side, integrating deviant actors and structures can be risky  – a challenge of political balance.


1.2 The closed society

A society that does not meet the basic requirements of the open society has to be considered as nonopen. This type of society lacks procedural openness (regarding results and action), plurality, and openness towards thirds (strangers).

Between the open and the closed society ongoing hostility seems to be self-evident: Not only the delineated structural contradictions but also an array of wars between open and nonopen communities stand for this hostility, from the bellicose conflict between Athens (open) and Spartha (non-open) in ancient Greece up to the hot and cold war between democratic states and totalitarian forces in the 20th century. In the beginning 21st century, this systemic conflict continues worldwide: The number of state systems that are estimated to be free and partly free by Freedom House has further grown during the past years ( A huge economic process of integration has taken place particularly in the Asian region. On the other side, concepts of religiously based closure expanded their impact since the 1980ies. See islamist preachers of hatred in the Near East and elsewhere proclaiming war against modern pluralistic livestyles and the open society.

Also within the OECD countries, extremists threaten the open society. So in some states of the USA, a fundamental conflict has developed about how much power religion should have. In this conflict, fundamentalists aim at eliminating the institutional separation between state and religion. Religiously ruled educating systems, such as a bible-founded natural history instruction, belong to their goals – in case of success a process that would destroy core elements of the open society.  


1.3 Regular variance of openness

In spite of the sharp contrast between the ideal types of the open and the closed society, varying openness is regular in any societal practice: In order to survive, also open societies need certain types of closure and retreating rooms for their members. So the basic institution of privacy protects retreating rooms against too much political and social control. Also half-open organisations, such as clubs, associations, federations, parties and neighbourhood, as well as half-open attitudes, such as solidarity, care or mutual response, are no strange patterns in the open society.

Weak actors have to be protected in every type of society. Also open societies usually operate having outer boundaries. Thereby they try to effectively influence flows of goods, money, information and people. Vice versa, also non-open societies need some elements of openness for being survivable. So, they have to develop some mechanisms for communicating with their political and social environment, for instance networks or channels to the international public sphere. In order to copy with unavoidable internal conflicts, they need at least minimal inner institutions of exchange and openness.

In sum, we have to state a regular variance of openness in any society. That's why open and closed societies show some structural overlappings, in spite of their basic contrasts. Therefore, it appears to be wise to hold basic values and principles of the open society also in intercultural dialogues. But how to manage that? How can the open society make itself understood? Und what media can be used for this communicative project?


2. Communicating the open society

2.1 Everyday communication

The ways actors communicate in their everyday lives are most influential. A fruitful pattern to understand different forms of everyday communication is the differenciation between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional forms of communication:

Any communication refers at least subliminally to the subjective relations between the involved communicators (Watzlawick/Beavin/ Jackson 1967). If people communicate only in this dimension, we may speak of one-dimensional communication. An example for that is how two young people, deeply fallen in love with one another, communicate with one another: Essentially, they communicate in nothing but terms of their love.

One-dimensional forms of communication in this sense are also given if actors are slavishly following an authority. Here, communicative acts may seem to relate to factual matters, but essentially they are dominated through the authoritative relation between the involved persons: Only the authority can be right, independently on who actually evaluates reality best.

If actors communicate not only in terms of their relations but also in an independent dimension of factual aspects (possibly including their relations to thirds), multi-dimensional communication develops. A special type of such communication is reflexive communication about how the involved people communicate or how they should communicate with each other.

Between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional forms of communication, a broad spectrum of differenciated or combined forms of communication does exist. One mixed type is authoritative exegesis, where an authority interpretes an authoritative text, may be in an innovative manner. Another combined sub-type is politeness, that may reach from authoritatively determined forms over forms based on reciprocal respect until routine forms or even forms intended by subliminal hatred. See also complex forms of irony or acting communication (theater, cabaret and so forth).

In general, one-dimensional forms of communication are typical of closed societies, while multi-dimensional forms are typical of open societies. In both cases, there are certain functional linkages. Typical features of a closed society, such as authoritative, non-pluralistic and non-open structures towards thirds (strangers), will be reproduced through authoritative, non-pluralistic insider-oriented forms of communication. Vice versa, typical features of an open society, such as plurality and openness towards third actors, need according kinds of communication.

This principal difference is consequential: Because multi-dimensional communication contains more information and tends to be more innovative, in general, open societies tend to be more innovative and productive. Furthermore, the open society boosts communication by allowing transboundary flows of information, an additional capability of learning and getting influence. On the other side, some actors may feel scared and alienated by too open forms of communication. Instead, they favour more limited forms of communication they can handle easier.

Because of those distinct differences, certain forms of everyday communication send different societal messages. Consequently, spreading open forms of everyday communication are influental media of the open society.


3.2 Symbols

We speak of symbols if signs are interpreted beyond their immediate marking and if their meaning is condensed emotionally. For example, the picture of an oily water bird shows in our perception not only a suffering bird, but it symbolises the environmental jeopardizing of waters or even the jeopardizing of natural environment in general. Understood in that way, symbols are very distinct analogue means of communication.

Socio-political symbolicity goes back to non-open societies with relatively stiff structures of power. Because these ancient societies stabilized themself through fixed, encouraging symbols, such as religious symbols (of divine rule) and symbols of monarchic power. That's why symbols are often considered to be tendencially anti-democratic, anti-reflective or even irrational. Although political symbols can really have those anti-democractic, non-open effects - see for example how aimedly and in what degree the German National Socialists used symbols - open societies need symbols too. 

Indeed, vital democracy requires factual and reflexive forms of communication that transcend power-fixed patterns. On the other side, there are strong requirements of condensation and simplification also in democracies: The general electorate, the people, have to understand and to control ongoing politics at least in core elements. For that, relatively complex factual structures of politics have to be transferred into understandable patterns. This translation from complex into relativ simple arguments needs condensing symbols. That's why symbols attain much importance also in the open society: Just because the open society is functionally highly differentiated, pluralistic and relatively risky, this society needs connecting symbols that express their fundamental requirements and values.

Until now however, positively loaded symbols of this kind are lacking. Indeed, all basic political institutions of democracy, such as constitutions, electoral procedures, parliaments and governmental institutions, represent and symbolize in a way the open society (Göhler 1997). However, those symbols of democracy usually are weak and sometimes turning into the contrary. See for instance relatively low and lowering turnout in some OECD countries. In contrast, negatively loaded symbols of the West are very influential. Examples of those (prevailing) negative symbols are high office buildings or, simply, money that seemingly symbolize the western, materialist or capitalistic world. Also the military presence of OECD-countries, particularly the USA, often has got aware as the symbol of the West.

Thinking about how the open society could be better communicated implies, amongst other aspects, to think about symbols. What does symbolise the open society already now? And what kind of symbols could be become relevant in the future? One, up to now underestimated, symbol of this type are games and sports: Meanwhile, big sport arenas are becoming cathedrals of our times, and sport heroes often symbolise competitive capabilities of certain countries. Sports in general are one means (amongst others) to symbolize what the open society can achieve, bound competition, fairness, and high performance. On the other side, modern sports also indicate how necessary is a clear distinction between operative actors and the regulative sphere: Open and fair sports as well as an open society need strong, independently administered rules and support by all their participants.


3.3 Religion

In general, there are tensions between religion and the open society: Religion is not aligned with open processes, pluralism and equality; it is rather determined by the reqirement to accept a certain transcendent truth. Deviations from this proclaimed truth usually will be punished, at least informally sanctioned, marginalised or even tabooed. Particular tensions to the open society arise because religions: a)    propagate the omnipotence of a transcendent power and the requirement of submission to this power (not to democratic sovereignty), b)    explain history, even personal lifes and events, as transcendently predetermined, c)    often do not comply with social und even juridical norms of the open society, particularly the fundamental equality of men and women, d)    sometimes propagate world views which complicate or obstruct a peaceful co-living (for example praying the withdrawal from society, eschatologically motivated self-destruction, violence or even terrorism).

In spite of these contradictions and tensions, religion can become an integral part of the open society: Religions sometimes are able to adjust themselves to civil structures of open societies. In this connection, it is decisive to what extent they claim dominance over society and state. If they give up such claims in favour of democratically legitimized institutions and act as actors amongst other civil actors, they might become civil.

Religiously stabilised values, for instance social cardinal virtues like honesty or truthfulness, can support any society, i.e. also open societies. Religion may fulfil important social functions, so by taking care of marginalized (for example ill, poor, homeless) persons. Indeed, in modern societies these functions often are realized by welfare state. However religious organisations can maintain substantial influence in this area. That' s why regarding sociopolitical functions often a division of labour between religious and state organizations does exist.

Certain basic values of a religion, for instance the equalization of every person vis-à-vis God, can agree with basic values of the open society (equality before law). Vice versa, there is a broad discussion about religious values as a precondition of the modern open society. Religious organizations and personalities sometimes support certain civil rights even more radically and strictly than other actors – see the institution of church asylum (Kirchenasyl). Here christian churches try to realize a fundamental right (asylum) more strictly than state authorities.

Finally, religion can be conceived as civil religion, a concept that historically goes back to Jean Jaques Rousseaus' religion civil in his writing contrat social. According to this concept, basic requirements of peaceful co-living in a modern civil state are forced not only by juridical but also by (civil) religious norms. Hence, the right of every person to unscathed life, human dignity and fundamental social equalization, regardless of gender, faith, religion, nationality, culture, income or other conditions, is always to protect. Those who injure these fundamental requirement are not only violating standards of international law. They also violate civil-religiously based norms.


3.4. Analysis

Analyzing literally means dissolving and reconstructing objects in order to understand their structure. If such dissolving uses empirical, i.e. scientific, methods, for instance comparative case studies, statistical methods or simulation, analysis stands for science. Analytical communication in this sense is scientific communication that requires in principle methodic and theoretical reflection. Analysis however is also possible in other media, such as journalism (mass media), internet or even artistic-entertaining media (cartoons, cabaret, comics, film, theater). Then non-scientific technics and leading ideas shape analysis.

In principle, analysis requires leading ideas (models of reality) and certain methodes (technics) of dissolving reality. Often, the leading ideas have a pragmatic background. Then analyzing is not only a methodic (technical) and a conceptual (theoretical) but also a pragmatic challenge. Analytical communication therefore has distinctly applicative character. This challenging, applicative approach can help to communicate the open society because of several reasons: Analytical communication can clear up what open societies are and what effects they may have. Empirical-analytical communication excludes magic assumptions and nontestifiable sayings or theories. Analyzing needs conscious, critical thinking and self-confidence - basic demands of the open society. Analysis promotes pluralistic patterns because actors with different or even competing interests, values, action styles are able to analyse. Empirical analyzing induces looking at reality and looking at what possible falsificators say. Therefore, analytically based communication fosters social learning - a basic element of open processes. Analyzing persons usually are aware of using certain methods and assumtions. Hence, analyzing is a reflexive process - a distinct multi-dimensional kind of communication.


4. Conclusions

It's no surprise that communication about the open society often has analytical features. But this approach is by far not sufficient: All outlined media contribute in specific ways to the figured communication project: The principles and values of the open society can only be communicated effectively if also forms of open everyday communication, symbols and religions enable the co-living in the upcoming world society.


Based on: Prittwitz, Volker von (2007): Vergleichende Politikanalyse, Stuttgart (UTB 2871), 148-155 (Communication) and 240-248 (Open and Non-open Society).

See also: