“It is important not to ‘react’ all the time”

New Europeans interviews Austrian sociolinguist Ruth Wodak about the expression of discrimination, Europe from a discursive perspective and why we should think twice before talking about ‘illegal migrants’.

Lena Kronenbürger (New Europeans): You look back on a long career and therefore a lot of experience as a sociolinguist. To what extent would you say that the expression of discrimination in Europe has changed over the years?

Ruth Wodak: In recent years, the expression of discrimination has become more explicit, even at very formal occasions.

After World War II and the Holocaust, xenophobic, antisemitic and racist stereotypes were usually coded and remained indirect and implicit, specifically in formal settings.

Ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 this has changed in respect to rhetoric towards migrants, especially from Eastern countries. The language has become explicitly offensive.

In recent years, due to the rise of the far-right in Europe and beyond, such as the US or Brazil, many traditional conventions of politeness, dialogue and negotiations have been transgressed and violated.

We are now frequently confronted with different “discourse worlds” which don’t  overlap or interact with each other anymore, due to social media: everybody is now capable of being their own ‘journalist’ and posting whatever comes to their minds.

Thus, serious investigative journalism is being backgrounded, even labelled as “fake news”.

The abrasive language seems to be attractive for some electorates; many voters even seem to perceive such abusive, misogynist and discriminatory language as “authentic”.

Furthermore, as I elaborate in my forthcoming book, the "shameless normalization" of such behaviour indicates that many people are becoming used to such violations and, in that way, discriminatory arguments, slogans, etc. have become acceptable and have arrived in the mainstream, in the centre of our societies.

Moreover, I claim, such communicative behaviour facilitates implementing ever more undemocratic policies like in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the US, and so forth.

LK: Why is it so important to look at discrimination from a linguistic perspective?

RW: Discriminatory meanings are conveyed by semiotic means, by written and spoken language, images, and posters, by social media, by signs, caricatures – by all genres which convey meanings. Hence, it is important to deconstruct such phenomena in order to first understand and then also explain such behaviour.

And thirdly, in order to be able to reflect which kind of counter-measures and counter-discourses might be effective.

LK: In your book entitled "The Politics of Fear" you analyse the interdependencies between politics and the media. When do these interdependencies become dangerous?

RK: It becomes dangerous when no more interaction between different echo-chambers exists. As already mentioned, it is important to support serious investigative journalism. Indeed, press freedom is seriously challenged in several countries, including EU member states such as Hungary and Poland.

Human Rights have to be reinforced, the freedom of journalists has to be ensured.

Finally, it is important not to ‘react’ all the time, being provoked by almost daily scandals, but to continue to set one’s own agenda.

Provocations and the violation of taboos have to be reported, but if so, they have to be contextualized; they should be commented on a meta-level; then readers or viewers would be able to better understand the strategies of the far-right.

LK: Recently, together with Markus Rheindorf, you have published the book “Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control: Language Policy, Identity and Belonging”.

In this book, you bring up the fact that the voices of migrants and refugees are rarely heard although there is no lack of debates or reports about them.

RW: Usually, as we and our co-authors elaborate in this book, journalists write and talk about migrants and the so-called "migration-problem“; by labelling migration preemptively as a „problem“, migration per se becomes „difficult“, something to be avoided; although, obviously, humankind has always experienced migration.

Usually, asylum-seekers and refugees, people sans papiers, are labelled as ‘illegal migrants’, which is a wrongly used label – they should be labelled as ‘irregular migrants’.

Their status only becomes  ‘illegal’ if they remain in a country although they were denied asylum or residence.

Rarely are migrants interviewed, rarely do we hear or read their stories about their plight – with the exception, sometimes, of experiences of unaccompanied children and adolescents.

Thus, the perceptions of the refugees and asylum seekers and those of many people in the host country differ significantly.

LK: With that in mind, what is your vision for the future of Europe - as a European, but also as a sociolinguist?

RW: I am not a prophet; thus I can only state a vision.

My vision would wish for a Social Europe, a Europe and European Union where Human Rights are monitored and implemented and where the huge existing inequalities – between rich and poor, North and South, East and West – would be confronted and new policies suggested to alter such inequalities.

The new EU-Marshall Plan is certainly a first step in the right direction.  

Moreover, the climate crisis should be taken very seriously.

All these huge challenges have to be confronted together; no single nation-state is able to cope with these enormous problems.

In this way, more solidarity is needed in order to challenge tendencies towards renationalising Europe.
Ruth Wodak is an Austrian sociolinguist and discourse analyst; she is Emeritus Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University, UK and the University of Vienna, Austria. Her research concerns mainly political communication, populism and identity politics. In addition, she has been intensively engaged in the study of discrimination and prejudice. Wodak has published widely, including her most recent book Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control: Language Policy, Identity and Belonging. The second edition of her bestselling book The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourse (Sage) will be published in September 2020

Interviewer: Lena Kronenbürger, freelance journalist, writer and the editor-in-chief of 42 Magazine


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