Demons of the Czech internet: Complexes, hatred, and frustration
"I want to show how absurd it is for anyone to claim to be a 'decent Czech' while simultaneously making some of the claims that turn up in the online discussions beneath news articles," says Jan Jablunka. His recent online video series, "Decent Czech" (Slušný Čech), which draws attention to the "demons of Czech online discussions", has recently poked thoroughly at more than one hornet's nest here.
Are online posts full of "hates" just the trash of the internet, or do they have something more to say about us? We asked Jan Jablunka that question some time ago by telephone.
Q: The "Decent Czech" enjoys turning up in online discussions on a wide variety of topics and loves expressing his opinions. How did the idea for the video of him come up? Is this just your personal "project", or are more people behind this one-man show?
A: It basically came up at random, almost just because I was bored. I was inspired by my friends' Facebook page, Obludárium (Freak Show), which publishes screenshots of the discussions that take place beneath online articles and makes fun of the various statements that are "off the charts". Their page reads as follows: "We are preserving the contributions made by these demons of the Czech online discussions who claim that gypsies, Havel, Jews, and in general everyone else around them are to blame for their fucked-up lives." The videos of "Decent Czech" are a one-man show, I produce it myself.
Q: It takes quite a dose of courage to launch such "broadcasts". You're putting your face and opinions out on the market, and the reactions of the "decent Czechs" to this didn't take very long to arrive and were rather easy to predict - were you surprised by any?
A: I was surprised, for example, that many people do not understand it is a parody. To them I'm basically a racist spreading such opinions.
Q: Do you receive positive responses? Do people recognize you on the street?
A: Yes. People do greet me on the street. They also stop me to talk, but it's usually a one-sided conversation - they don't want to talk with me, but just to tell me how they see things, to communicate their perspective, and they basically aren't expecting a dialogue.
Q: Do you sometimes do other commentaries, ones that the "decent Czechs" might disagree with?
A: My video about the Brno City Hall was like that. The city had the Žít Brno (Live Brno) initiative's Facebook profile taken down, which was a web page that was pointing out, for example, that the updating of the city's territorial plan was dubious. When the profile was erased it had about 17 000 fans. After it was removed, the initiative decided not to fight the city just through practical jokes and they ran a candidate in the municipal elections against Mayor Roman Onderka. Most of those who commented on that video were on the side of the people from Žít Brno.
Q: When you follow the discussion "scene" online in the Czech media, what conclusions do you draw? This is a definitely a "genre" in and of itself, a magnet for shouting of all kinds, but basically it isn't a representative sample of Czech society, it mainly attracts those who want to discuss things and many other people never read those discussions precisely because they are aware of their content and have no need for such "reading material". How do you believe we might characterize the "typical" decent Czech - the typical online discussion participant?
A: In those commentaries, what filters through is mainly frustration. It's basically a kind of herd behavior, somebody kicks it off and everyone else joins in and then the debate becomes polarized. It's not really debate, it can't be said that this is about arguments, about different opinions of the truth, often a single, dominant ethos governs the discussion. For the "hard-core" participants it's primarily about having their say - they basically don't want to discuss anything. It's definitely not a representative sample. Some of these people suffer because they don't understand what is going on - the society around them is developing rather rapidly and they haven't managed to get on board. For them, the internet represents a certain refuge, a place to hide, safety. I feel sorry for some of them. Sometimes you can recognize who is participating by their style, some of the posts are evidently not written by educated people. It's not always easy to go through these discussions, sometimes you need to really work to understand what the author is actually trying to say. I'm not saying the internet is bad - on the contrary, it's good that people have this opportunity. What we used to mainly analyze in the pub is today being addressed in these online discussions. However, what I miss there is any kind of critical reflection - and basically, that's what I am. It's hard to say to what degree I intersect with those participating in the online discussions. The gulf of misunderstanding between us is very deep. The media sometimes debate banning online discussions - but in their way, they are documenting society's opinions and giving people instructions on how to change some things. They are basically a kind of enormous sociological study, containing an enormous amount of data about people, including about people who need help. It's important to focus on the "haters" who simplify everything terribly and head in one direction only, without listening to counter-arguments. Their arguments are the most stupid - for example, about skin color.
Q: What is the main intention of your "broadcasting" the "Decent Czech" videos? Is it to hold a mirror up to society, to those participating in these discussions, to draw attention to their intolerant positions?
A: The aim is to show how absurd it is to claim you are a "decent Czech" while at the same time making some of the other claims that turn up in these online discussions - to deconstruct the concept. It's to show that these "decent Czechs" are, at the same time, real "pigs". The strongest cases of that were the commentaries about the [Romani] quintuplets. Those were truly terrifying.
Q: What bothers you most about the "decent Czechs"?
A: That they are unwilling to look for any faults in their own selves. The principle of "hate and blame."
Q: Underneath an iDNES.cz article about your videos on that was featured on their Facebook page, someone posted the following commentary: "Practical jokers are mostly just enjoying themselves. Who pays him??? Is this love thy neighbor???" Personally I am under the impression that it doesn't cost anything to film "Decent Czech" - that it's the kind of "action for a good cause" that can be done completely for free. Or is a secret society actually paying you?
A: That's precisely how it began, all I needed was internet access. However, the videos generated a following, and after some time Stream contacted me. I have agreed for them to pay me to host the videos on their server. Paradoxically, this is thanks to the online discussion participants about whom I make these videos.
Q: What was it like for you to film with the young documentary filmmaker Janička and the director of the "Ptáčata" television series, Kamila Zlatušková? Did you reach out to them or did you already know them? What did those who comment on "Decent Czech" make of the child? The commenters are sometimes pretty rough, after all.
A: I had known Kamila a little from before. However, when I saw one of the episodes of "Ptáčata", I got the idea to film something - it logically came together and it was clear we would do it. It was an enormous experience for me. I spent all evening with Janička's family, I saw how they live, how things work among them. I believe that is precisely what is most important, that we get to know specific people. We didn't choose the absolutely most horrifying commentaries to read, and Kamila and I explained to everyone in the family what we were doing. They knew it was a joke, that we were reading what some stupid people had written and that we were basically laughing at those people.
Q: What is your view of coexistence between the majority society and the Romani minority here? How do you think we can progress toward greater respect for others, tolerance instead of the blind acceptance of prejudice, an effort to view people as individuals?
A: I believe it's a mistake that there are no public discussions about why this gulf exists between people. There should be discussions in which authority figures explain what the problem is - for example, by teaching us about the sociological perspective on poverty. It's hard with people who have deeply-rooted, superficial prejudices, there we need to draw back the curtain, take a look at everything behind those prejudices and how it's all interconnected. What role is played by the "special schools" - today the "practical schools" - which are attended by a disproportionate number of Romani children, what led to their moving into the ghettos, what is it like for the children who have never taken a look outside them? It's terribly important that non-Romani people and Romani people meet one another as children in the schools.
Q: What would you say to the "decent Czechs" about the well-worn phrase "I am not a racist, but.."?
A: What bothers me the most is when someone responds to evil with evil. Janička's dad, for example, when we were filming, also responded indiscriminately, which is completely understandable. However, what is mainly needed is to speak with people, to undertake the small-scale work of communication. The person on the other side, even though he opposes you, holds another opinion, still needs to have the feeling you are listening to him, it's important to create a kind of mutual trust. Then you just talk with him, let him make his arguments, and you present yours. That's how I convinced my mother, for example.
Q: We can see your cat every once in a while in your videos - what does she think of your filming? What's her name? Unless, of course, she wants to remain anonymous, which we naturally would respect.
A: Right now I'm making her nervous because I'm walking around. She just knocked over some flowers. I think this one is Michell, but it's a little more complicated than that. There were two, but one ran away and I don't know which one it was.
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