Sticks and Stones

30. oktobris, 2007


Marija Golubeva

As a student of English very long ago, in my teacher's apartment just across the street from the place where I work now, I learned a scary saying. It went like this: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me". I disagreed with it then. I still disagree with it now, because words hurt. And hurtful words repeated many times over, by many people, hurt a lot.

This blog is about words. More precisely, it is about the words of those who have the power to influence the minds of the public by implanting there significant attitudes, ideas and emotions. The words of politicians, journalists, NGO and church leaders and all other people whose words carry weight in society. This blog is going to be my Word Watch, even though I know that the name ‘WordWatch’ itself is patented and I cannot use it. So I am not going to use it henceforth, but you already know what I mean.

In Latvia and elsewhere in Europe, every week, statements are made in the media, in the parliaments and in the street to the effect that some groups are, well… just not as good as others. They just don’t have it, you see. Immigrants, someone’s neighbours with a funny accent or a different way of life, someone’s tenant with a funny orientation. Therefore, they are constantly shown their place – told off, disregarded, made a cause of security concerns, excluded from the public sphere. This is done – mainly – with the help of words. Words that researchers call “exclusionary rhetoric” and “delegitimising strategies”. It is, of course, mere talk. But this kind of talk, coming from opinion leaders and politicians, causes harm. Therefore, they should not be allowed to run away with it.

At PROVIDUS, where I work, we have decided to count the instances of such talk – be it on the pages of national newspapers or in the Saeima (Parliament). Our monitoring project is called “Shrinking Citizenship”, because whenever we are told in plublic that some group is not good enough for participating in the public life, a symbolic barrier to civic participation is constructed. When such barriers are many, many people – representatives of ethnic and other minorities, NGO activists and others – feel excluded from the public sphere. This is, of course, an ideal condition for a narrow, corporativist kind of politics to flourish. And in Latvia, it does.

To reclaim the public sphere, we gather evidence of deligitimising strategies used by politicians, journalists, editors and others. We put this evidence in context and note, which group the speaker strives to exclude. For instance, if an MP mentions “those, whose place is not here, but elsewhere – in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus”, – we can see, from the context of Latvian politics, that he implies not foreign citizens holding different passports, but local residents or even Latvian citizens whose families moved to Latvia under the Soviets. When a major political figure speaks of “networks” whose resources are “inedequately big for Latvia and coming from abroad”, we can assume, from the context of previous statements in the press, that a particular group of NGOs is targeted – those, who insist on having a voice in public policy debate and who offer critical analysis of government policies.

By the end of the year, we hope to come up with a comprehensive analysis of the state of public discourse on participation issues in Latvia. Meanwhile, in this blog, I will bring up examples of interesting, symptomatic or simply alarming talk reflecting the culture of public debate in Latvia and elsewhere, and its capacity to accomodate differences of opinion and otherness.

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