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Originally published in Sreda, No. 11, 2002
Sergey Lukashevskiy, The Language of Hate: A Slip of the Tongue or Racism?
Russian society today suffers from intolerance and xenophobia. In recent years, the level of hatred of minorities and “others” has grown noticeably. The “irritating influx” of migrants and peoples from the Caucasus or Central Asia “taking over”—these long-held and wide-spread Russian attitudes are becoming entrenched to the extent that we see their natural outcome—attacks such as carried out by members of skin-head gangs. This atmosphere of hatred has of course an effect on the way that people speak, including the way language is used in the mass media. This language, as is well known, has the power to control as much as disseminate ideas.
Traditionally, stirring up national discrimination and other types of hatred in the media is associated with radical conservative-nationalist publications, whose audience is generally small. The majority of people, including those who are xenophobic, read, watch, and listen to other types of media.
With this in mind, four well-known Moscow civil society organizations—The Information-Research Center “Panorama,” The Moscow Helsinki Group, The Fund for the Protection of Openness, and The Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights—decided to join forces to try to figure out to what extent mainstream media inherently carries this above-mentioned intolerance, xenophobia and the like, already hard-wired into the very language that is used. This is the reason why the project was called “The Language of Hate in Russian Mass Media: Monitoring and Public Actions.”
The way we organized the project was to study media with a small sample of news internet sites. This choice was made, we should specify, because with live broadcasts on television, the problem of hate speech is more controversial and much more labor intensive and expensive. Monitoring was carried out in Moscow as well as five other regions in Russia: St. Petersburg (large city), Perm Region (typical urbanized region), Ryazan Region (communist belt), Kemerov Region (Siberian region), and Krasnodar Region (Southern region and notorious for racially-based local politics). We intentionally avoided looking at the situation in national republics, for those cases deserve separate study. The project was supported by the Open Society Institute in Budapest and Moscow.
Krasnodar and Ryazan Stand Apart From the Pack
The phenomena of overt discrimination seems to generally stand out in two areas: Ryazan and Krasnodar regions. In the Krasnodar region, in Kuban, politicians participate in openly discriminatory politics, opening relying on xenophobic rhetoric. The local press plays along. Typical are such headlines as “Kuban for the Kubanites! It’s true that Kuban is a multi-ethnic place, but the most important people in Kuban are we Russians.” (Kuban Segodnya, October 10, 2001). The media print the words of the acting governor, A. Tkachev. Tkachev does not need to throw out his ideological-racial demands—it is clear who the enemy is: “… look at the Crimean neighborhood, there are places there where the Mesketian Turks are literally pushing us locals out.” (Kuban Novosti, November 3, 2001). Even the bureaucracy adds to the hysteria: “we need to make sure that these people do not feel at home here, and then begin to think this is their home.” (Kuban Segodnya, March 22, 2002). On the whole, such rhetoric is atypical both for the Russian media and for Russian political figures (although, insofar as I know, in Astrakhan there are similarities, though on a far lesser scale). The situation in Krasnodar demonstrates that the mass media does in fact act in such a way.
At this point it is appropriate to note that according to our data base, government officials (administrative heads, deputies, judges, members of law enforcement) resort to using hate speech less often than public figures, “experts,” and the like.
In Ryazan, the situation is also bad, but in a different way. It seemed like every week the data base fills with articles containing language similar to what would find in rabid racist pamphlets. All our samples came from a single newspaper: Vecherniy Ryazan, which has the second highest circulation in the region. The newspaper officially congratulated the regional arm of the Russian National Unity Party on its 11th anniversary by publishing an excerpt from a book by a former U.S. Klu Klux Klan leader on the “real role of Jews in the modern world.” And I will not delve in the lengthy quotes that go on to explaining how the Day of Homeland Protectors (formerly Red Army Day) and International Women’s Day are embedded with secret references to the Jewish holiday of Purim. This all is standard racist pamphleteering. Let us note, however, that such publications in Moscow or major cities would account for a comparatively small part of the media pie, commanding only marginal importance. In Ryazan this occurs on a totally different scale, for Vecherniy Ryazan is one of the most most-read newspapers there.
Who Else Is Making Noise?
The press in other areas does not really come close to the extremes described above. When you are looking for hate speech, you find that sort of thing as a planned provocation by nationalists, as opposed to things which are normally printed in the media (with some of the exceptions noted above). However, we have found that when you peruse any text (and consider its context), the media starts looking not so good.
In talking about the aftermath to September 11, American investigators were reported to have arrested people on the basis of what suspects said in telephone calls. However, why does a journalist suggests that, “Americans inform on their neighbors with abandon.” It will be interesting to see if in similar circumstances with similar conditions, the press would use the same language in Russia.
In order to create a bold headline, a quite serious article dedicated to stopping the illegal export of oil out of the Caucasus is entitled “In the Chechens’ Bag” (Kommersant, October 2, 2001). Nonetheless, nowhere in the article is there indication as to the nationality of the persons taking the oil. The headline, however, etches different information into the reader’s memory.
Pejorative references to ethnicity are made with astonishing ease. It would be unthinkable to use the word “Zhid” just to be witty in an article discussing persons who are Jewish. Nonetheless, it seems like journalists feel they have poetic license to call Ukrainians “Hahli,” the derogatory term in Russian for our southern neighbors. “What Are Those Idiots, the Hahli Doing?” (Megopolis-Express, October 15, 2001); “Save the Hahli From Their National Pastime” (Rossiya, February 21, 2002); and in describing competition between Russian and Ukrainian metal smelters, a journalist from Kemerov finds it appropriate to refer to the former once again as “hahli.” (Kuzbass, December 25, 2001).
People from Pakistan came under the view of the Russian press as a consequence of the American invasion of Afghanistan. And here, they were referred to as “Pac-men.” I would not be surprised if the average Russian starts acting differently now towards these people when he meets them. Journalists at times would write, “many Pacs are fanatics, who act in extreme ways. They are all fiery and malicious in their world outlook, you can only understand these people who look burnt if you see the unbelievable cruelty that goes on in their daily lives.” (Komsomolskya Pravda, October 12, 2001).
This affects not only these ethnic groups. The headline in an article about Japanese cars reads “Let me have one of those Japanese babes!” (Kemerov Region, Tom, March 13, 2002. This sort of treatment of ethnic groups also applies to the very characteristics of certain goods. While remarking on the quality of Chinese goods, the author of an article notes that the goods originate in a “slanty-eyed country.” (Kuzbass, November 13, 2001).
Of course, one of the most wide-spread forms in which the language of hate is propagated is through ascribing criminal tendencies to certain ethnic groups, particularly people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South-East Asia. In an article about crimes being committed at a market, the author uses the words “the 25-year-old Korean,” and “the Korean girl” interchangeably with “swindler” and “thief,” such that they become synonymous. Similar articles regularly appear concerning Azeris, Caucasians, Gypsies, and others, such that readers cannot help but come away with the impression that certain ethnic groups are particularly crime-prone.
The social prerequisites for xenophobia, and the language of hate that comes with it for people of the Caucasus and Central Asia is clearly apparent, but we also found an article describing Turkish workers, working for a foreign firm in Russia, who had their contracts severed. “The Turks forget about the need to be civil, and they jostle with each other to get the best place to look at the female management representative. They whistle at her, actively gesticulate, click their tongues, and yell clearly indecent things in Russian, and presumably indecent things in Turkish.” (Novye Izvestie, November 21, 2001).
How We Treat Others and How We Treat Ourselves
There is no point in going on describing separate instances. We could go on to demonstrate different forms of the language of hate and at whom they are directed, but it would not help get to the essence of the matter.
To conclude, the overwhelming majority of instances where the language of hate is used results from a lack of consciousness on the part of journalists that the words that grab people’s attention can also mold their perceptions of the world. This characteristic of the media, in particular of the yellow press—to write without thinking of the social repercussion—applies not only to developing attitudes concerning different ethnic groups and religions, but also other areas of society.
In the future, we could textually analyze articles in order to show journalists how to write on ethnic topics in such a way that ethnicity is not so clearly put to the forefront in such a way as to create stereotypes. This, however, will only be a worthwhile endeavor if journalists in this country accept their social responsibility to unify society, and not divide it between its constituent groups.