Petra Gerster: “I didn’t expect so much anger and indignation”

When Petra Gerster started gendering on the news, there were violent reactions. Here she reveals how much that hit her.

When Petra Gerster (66) started to gender in the “heute” news, there were violent reactions. Together with her husband Christian Nürnberger (70) she is now publishing the book “Vermintes Terrain – How the war over words is changing our society: The consequences of identity politics” (Heyne). In an interview with spot on news, Gerster reveals how much she has been hit by the Shitstorm and how she has experienced the time since her last broadcast in May 2021.

Dear Ms. Gerster, you and your husband wrote the book “Vermintesände”. What is the most important thing you would like to give your readers in it?

Petra Gerster: With our book, we want to encourage understanding for the fact that many things are currently fundamentally changing. The largely homogeneous society of the 50s and 60s is a thing of the past; today we have a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-gender Germany. That creates conflict and discrimination, and we have to respond to that. For example, with fairer, inclusive language.

Why is gender causing such heated discussions?

Gerster: Gendering with the little asterisk pause is initially unfamiliar and strange to many, so they reject it. We understandably cling to the language as we learned it from an early age. Then there are those who refuse the asterisk for reasons of aesthetics, often they are authors. I can understand that too. But then there are the activists among the gender opponents – mostly older men who basically want to maintain their supremacy with the generic masculine. It’s clearly about ideology, about the privileges of the “old white man”.

Is it really “old, white men” who have the biggest problem with gender language?

Gerster: For the most part, yes, I can see that in the letters that I have received about it. And you can also see it in the full-page expert articles in FAZ and NZZ and in the letters to the editor – many professors emeritus write there, but rarely or never younger linguists. I think there is a whole generation afraid of losing the sovereignty of interpretation with the masculine language.

Are you advocating an official gender standard?

Gerster: For God’s sake no, we’re still in the experimental phase. Language has to grow, has to develop by itself and must not be imposed from above. This process of becoming aware, of sensitizing people to the meaning of language, is a big step in itself. But it is far too early to say any do’s or don’ts. Let’s see how things develop and what will prevail over the next few years. In any case, I plead for serenity!

There are many ways to gender in the written language: asterisk, the inner colon or inner underscore, but also the large inner I. Why do you prefer the asterisk?

Gerster: When searching the net, the asterisk stands for a space to which something can be added. In this respect, it is ideal to address not only women but also people who do not feel clearly male or female. The Federal Constitutional Court also instructed us to do this when it officially recognized the third gender in 2017. The asterisk shows respect for non-binary people who have always been excluded up to now. That’s why I prefer it to the other forms.

Does gender affect people’s behavior when speaking and writing?

Gerster: Language is an expression of our thinking and precedes our actions. As it is said in this old saying: Pay attention to your thoughts, because they will become your words, pay attention to your words, because they will become your actions. So yes. Those who speak politely and respectfully to their counterparts will certainly not spit in their face afterwards. But it is just as clear: A conscious language cannot replace the struggle for factual equality, it can only supplement it.

What do you say to critics who keep emphasizing that there are more important problems than gender?

Gerster: There are more and more important problems. Climate change, hunger, the stark difference between rich and poor. Any discussion can be stifled with this argument. Anyone who calls gender or the search for a fair language a luxury discussion, however, fails to recognize the signs of the times. It’s not about formalities, but much more: about history, origin, ethnicity, skin color and gender – in short, about identity. And the desire to participate. We have to deal with that, whether we want to or not.

When you started gendering on the “Today” news, the reaction was huge. Did this shit storm or individual reactions hit you personally?

Gerster: In the beginning, yes. I hadn’t expected so much anger and indignation. But the reactions have also shown me that it is obviously about more than my moderate, very occasional gendering. A fight is actually being waged against the unreasonable demands of the modern world. That was the real reason for us to write the book: not only about gender, but also about the struggle of minorities and their self-empowerment.

And what role do social media play in this?

Gerster: Social media are the fire accelerators of our time: They cause rapid states of excitement, because the more emotional and angry a tweet or post, the more clicks it gets – the currency in this world. And no journalistic authority far and wide that intervenes to regulate and moderate. Whoever shouts the loudest wins. In this respect, social media contribute significantly to the division of society.

They had the “wish to relax a bit first. I wanted to have leisure, travel, think about a dog”. What about these plans right now?

Gerster: Instead of relaxing, we wrote all summer, and now we have a lot of appointments to talk about the book. Unfortunately, the dog still has to wait – four-legged babies also need time, rest and attention.

Do you sometimes miss the moderation of the “today” news?

Gerster: What I miss most is my team, with whom I really enjoyed working. I just gave a big party for the heute editorial team, it was a nice end! Now my time as a news lady is up, it’s others’ turn, and they’re doing it just as well.

At the end of the year, your long-time ZDF colleague Claus Kleber will also be retiring. What words would you like to give him along the way?

Gerster: I think everyone has to find their own way.

The year is slowly coming to an end, what is your conclusion for 2021?

Gerster: For me it was really exciting and quite exhausting. The next one can be a little quieter.

What do you want for 2022?

Gerster: That a few more stubborn heads should think about it and get vaccinated so that we can finally say goodbye to the pandemic.


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