Media image of Romani people in the Czech Republic - the power of words
"In the beginning was the word" (John 1).
"And God said: 'Let there be light!' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3).
These two well-known Biblical citations indicate the power people have always attributed to the spoken word. Awareness of this great power has been preserved by some cultures to this day. In her book "Fires in the Dark", Louise Doughty recalls a Romani tradition according to which a child's father chose his or her "everyday" name, but a child's mother had the privilege of whispering the "real" name to the child at birth. The mother did not even have to tell the child's real name to the father - the fewer people who knew it, the better. That real name meant power.
After the Cartesian revolution of the mind and reason, described by Descarte's famous phrase "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), the significance of words was forgotten. Words become the intelligible vessels into which we pour our thoughts and were not considered interesting in and of themselves.
In 1980, George Lakoff published his book "Metaphors We Live By" (published in Czech translation in 2002), showing that words are something more. According to the California-based linguistics professor, metaphors or words are not mere devices for our thoughts as we previously believed, but actually shape our thoughts. Through language, we categorize and organize our thoughts - our brain has no other forms or matrices available to it for that purpose. Words are not an expression of thought, but its embodiment - they are, as Lakoff says, "mind embodied". Words (some in particular) are like keys to locks: They can open doors for us into the chambers of a castle, or into its dungeon - or its stables. They can liberate, bring together, and reveal extensive areas never before known because never before expressed. They spread through society with the speed of a viral infection. However, they can also conceal important parts of reality for many years. They can divide us, imprison us, supervise us - they can even arrest us and bring us social death. We have really always understood this: Just as parents are overly cautious about their children's speech, their children will one day supervise the speech of their own offspring in the manner of the vocabulary police.
In the media landscape, some words stick out forlornly like fragments of forgotten realities. Others show us the way to the winding staircase that takes us into the collective unconscious. Still others have, for centuries, fixed the promise of hope, or moments of decision - or just pointed to the moon. There are good words and there are bad ones. One way or another, we must contemplate them, because as the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, words lead us to actions, action to habits, habit to character, and character to our destiny.
The words labeling minorities in society are no different. We do not have to be especially hypersensitive to see how closely related words like "cigán" and "cikán" ("gypsy") lead us to different associations and semantic fields. The original idea of political correctness, as it came into being in the USA, was to find other terms for minorities so as to relieve them of the burden of older meanings and enable them to exist in the public sphere without apprehension or blame. Let's admit it - existence is rather difficult when you are referred to as "untouchable" - or as "inadaptable".
Let's start with the traditional names that are not used as often today. Cigáni ("Gypsies") (featured in 2 % of publications sampled) is more or less an anachronism that has acquired a connotation in the area of culture. One example is the Slovak music group "Cigánski diabli" ("Gypsy Devils"), the photographic monograph entitled "Cigáni", ("Gypsies"), etc. Romani people often refer to themselves with this word: For example, Dušan Kotlár, a Romani musician from Liberec, has complained that "the real Gypsy elite" is missing here ("ta pravá cigánská elita"). This form of the word, it seems, is also a favorite of Czech MP Otto Chaloupka (Public Affairs - VV), and not just in reference to the past ("Until the revolution there was also an obligation to work. The Gypsies had to get to work." - "Do revoluce taky existovala povinnost pracovat. Cigáni museli makat."), but also to the present, as in this headline: "MP: If a Gypsy attacks me with a knife I have the right to shoot him in the head" ("Poslanec: Když mě přepadne Cigán s dýkou, mám právo mu ustřelit hlavu"). Yes, the editors of news server Parlamentnilisty.cz selected such a headline for an interview with the MP, published on 16 January 2012. That media outlet, as well as other news servers (such as the blogospheres at iDNES.cz and euportal.cz), are behind the higher frequency for the use of that word this year.
The word cikán ("gypsy") (used in 16 % of publications sampled), which was used to refer to the minority until the more neutral term of "Roma" was introduced, is currently typical for every sixth reference to the minority. The term "cikán" is similar to "cigán"; to be more precise, its meaning is becoming historicized and shifting into the realm of cultural reference. For example, on the web page of the daily Mf DNES, we find this word in the title of the film "Gypsy" ("Cikán"), referring to a performance of "Gypsies Go to Heaven" ('Cikáni jdou do nebe"), "gypsy" musical motifs ("cikánských hudebních motivech"), "gypsy" virtuosos ("cikánském virtuosovi") or a "gypsy" fortuneteller ("cikánské věštkyni"). Nevertheless, part of the internet scene also writes about Cikáni (Parlamentnilisty.cz, euportal.cz, iDNES.cz – blog.cz), where the word has seeped in from the arena of everyday life with negative connotations, and where, for various reasons, people scorn the written use of the term "Roma". Online bloggers and journalists had to learn from former Czech Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek that the word "gypsy" ("cikán"), like the term "colored" in the USA, is no longer considered polite for reasons of political correctness (see euportal.cz 31 January 2012). Czech MP Jiří Šulc (ODS) apparently never heard the news - on that same day, speaking of his experience as the Governor of Ústí Region, he was quoted as discussing the continually deteriorating "gypsy" ("cikánské") issue (see (Parlamentnilisty.cz "Former governor slams Gypsies - for them it's normal to steal and not work" - "Pro Cikány je normální nepracovat a krást, udeřil bývalý hejtman").
Nevertheless, for the most part the Czech media speaks of "Roma" - use of this term is characteristic for seven out of 10 pieces (74 %). Even this apparently neutral term does not have the power to overcome the context in which it is used, which in the Czech media is typically the context of petty crime, police discourse, and troubled behavior by members of this minority in general. The diction that some news servers used with the term "gypsy" ("cikán") has spread to tabloid headlines like those in Aha! ("Did the Roma rob this garage?!" - "Vykrádali Romové garáž?!" ,4 January 2012; "Did the Roma massacre them?!" - "Ubili ji Romové?!", 19 January 2012) or Blesk ("Shooting in Tanvald: The Roma attack!" - "Střelba v Tanvaldu: Útočili Romové!", 14 January 2012). The serious press is more cautious about this, which might be cause for slight optimism among readers. The daily Mf DNES, for example, in addition to covering events in North Bohemia this past January, also wrote about Romani people in Josefov who are able to work "for a Rom", i.e., the Romani owner of a construction firm. That paper also remembered to publish appropriate corrections to previous reporting ("Man made up story of assault by Roma, stabbed himself" - "Napadení Romy si muž vymyslel, bodl se sám", 31 January 2012).
The most recent "hit" in Czech usage is to label Romani people as "inadaptables" ("nepřizpůsobivé") - a term used in 8 % of media surveyed. Here the social body is evidently expressing what it has always thought. It seems society is extremely satisfied with this new term, as in 2012 its use rose sharply. The situation with respect to this term was crowned by an event in Karviná that called itself "Zero tolerance for the inadaptables" ("Nulová tolerance nepřizpůsobivým“). On 19 January 2012, public broadcaster Czech Television reported on the "raid on the inadaptables" in the same tone as residents used to announce their event.
If anyone is still unable to imagine what stigmatization looks like in practice, the definitive example is that of a photograph used by the daily Deník on 20 January 2012 to report on this "raid" in its 72 different editions across the country. The photo shows a municipal patrol officer in dark clothing peering into the window of a dilapidated apartment building with the caption "Karviná: The inadaptables are surrounded" ("Karviná: nepřizpůsobiví v obklíčení“). News server Parlamentnilisty.cz used a tone implicitly evoking the movie "Planet of the Apes" at the end of January, quoting persons who believe the problem of the inadaptables requires a "radical" solution ("Mayor of Děčín: Government should have addressed the problems with inadaptables radically" - "Primátor Děčína: Problémy s nepřizpůsobivými měla vláda řešit radikálně", 24 January 2012) or a "harsh" one ("Vandas advises the Government: Harsh action against the inadaptables" - "Vandas radí vládě: Na nepřizpůsobivé tvrdě", 29 January 2012).
Since we started this piece with quotes from the Bible, we can also end with one: "Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome'.” (Genesis 32:28). Those words bring us a certain hope. They remind us that the process through which people use words to name others around them, and through those words to understand them, never ends. In that sense, the future is open and depends on us alone.
About the company: For 15 years, NEWTON Media, a.s., has been the largest company in the Czech Republic supplying electronic, full transcripts of all information reported in the press, transcripts of selected programs on radio and television, wire service news, and the content of online news servers. Media analysis is a product with a high information value, researching the position of the media on various subjects over time in a given area.
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