Shifting the language borders. The case of contemporary Poland
Karolina Wigura 18 January 2016

There have been several fundamental reasons behind this process. First, it should be noted that many symbolical anniversaries and important political events accumulated in this period. From November 2014 to October 2015, as many as three political elections of particular significance took place: local elections on 16 November 2014, presidential elections on 10 and 24 May 2015 (two rounds) and parliamentary elections on 25 October 2015. The radicalization of debate was particularly pronounced in the months preceding the last elections, while the first weeks of the new right-wing coalition government, headed by the conservative Law and Justice Party, were a continuation of the heated atmosphere.

It is well also worth noting that on 10 April 2015 we had the fifth anniversary of Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash (the crash of the presidential aircraft carrying President Lech Kaczyński, the First Lady Maria Kaczyńska and 94 other people close to city of Smolensk in Russia). The profusion of conspiracy theories, especially on the right side of the political scene, suggests that this issue is surrounded by very strong emotions and aggressive language.

Due to the atmosphere connected with the successive election campaigns, problems which in a normal situation would probably be discussed less emotionally, were exploited for political uses, particularly to stir up emotions and define political divisions. Of particular note here is the refugee crisis, which erupted particularly strongly in the summer of 2015 and since September 2015 became an important issue in the Polish parliamentary campaign. Also of note is a wider phenomenon, namely the influence of the language of internet chats, social media, blogs etc. on public debate in Poland. Striving to remain popular, traditional media imitate the brevity characteristic for the web, adding to the radicalization of the public sphere.

Confrontation or radicalisation?

In the last 25 years three fundamental lines of division emerged in Polish debates.

The first one is, to use a formulation popular in Communist Poland, the division into “us” and “them”, paradoxically meant to describe a confrontational relation between society and the regime. Starting from the early 1990s, you could speak about a split between former dissidents and post-Communists. In a situation of building a party democracy, entailing the necessity of forming coalitions, pursuing foreign policy in a given geopolitical situation etc., this division had to start to disappear at some point. It was similar in the case of the “post-Communist division”, diagnosed by Mirosława Grabowska, supposedly running between the (richer and with a head start in life) heirs of Communist Poland and (worse off and with not so good prospects at the start of their careers) inheritors of the opposition. Over the years, the lines of this division blurred, as a result of increasing social mobility and modernizing changes, especially those after Poland’s joining the European Union.

The second line of division ran among the “Solidarity” people from the start of the transition: between the so-called first and second “Solidarity”. What was meant here is a difference between the “first Solidarity”, founded in 1980 as a vast social movement and delegalized with the introduction of martial law in 1981, and “second Solidarity” founded again in 1989 by opposition as a part of a compromise with the communist government which lead to first free elections later the same year. The “post-Solidarity division”, later diagnosed e.g. by Tomasz Żukowski, is a continuation of this cleavage, further increased by the position of two post-Solidarity parties on the political scene: Law and Justice (PiS) and Civic Platform (PO), where PiS was described as the continuation of the first, and PO of the second “Solidarity”.

The third line of division separates people with more Nationalist-Catholic views from those tending towards a liberal outlook. The former demand a more intense presence of religion in the public sphere and take a conservative approach to moral questions, such as rejecting civil unions between persons of the same sex. The latter are advocates of a strong separation between the Church and state, and a more liberal attitude to moral questions. The former represents the attachment to Polish national traditions. Some of them even claim that this tradition is the only strong element of Polish identity which remained after the almost total dissolution of Poland in the EU and that Poland should follow the path of independent agency and national sovereignty. The latter claim in this context that our country should above all think about successful cooperation with Western countries; that the European Union means educational and financial opportunities which we should make use of instead of wallowing in a Eurosceptical traditionalism.

If we take a good look at the public debate in Poland today, we will see that all the three lines of division are contemporarily being rhetorically highlighted. But rather than producing heated, but substantive arguments, rather the rhetoric of division is being strengthened. All the three fault-lines are exploited in a contemporary version of the Schmitt’s distinction enemy/friend, and any subtleties are barely visible. The two camps, or “two feuding Polands”, as they are commonly called, are eager to attach various labels to each other. In the eyes of liberals, the “nationalist- Catholic Poland” is composed of “paranoiacs” or “authoritarian personalities”. The liberals are perceived by the other side as “traitors of the Republic” or “heartless neoliberals”.

Are the language borders being shifted?

In light of what stated above, it is important to determine if in today’s Poland the radicalization of debate caused by the factors described above leads to a shift of the language borders which were formerly regarded as unshakable.

Among the hyperbole gladly used by Polish politicians and commentators it is difficult to distinguish at first sight which rhetorical figures are only expressive, but harmless performative and persuasive tricks and which can lead, for example, to discrimination of specific groups. For example, Polish commentators, both conservative and liberal ones, often use suggestive concepts of disease, charging their political opponents with mental disorders (such as paranoia, hysteria, delirium).

But there are cases when using particular rhetorical figures seems dangerous in such a sense in which Mabel Berezin wrote about the normalization of the language of extreme right in mainstream politics. Of particular note here is using the concept of disease in reference to refugees coming to Poland. An emblematic example is of course the infamous statement by Jarosław Kaczyński from October 2015 about parasites and protozoa transmitted by immigrants from Syria (“Different kinds of parasites, protozoa, which are not dangerous in the organisms of these people, can be dangerous here”, he said). We are dealing with a rhetoric which defines certain groups of people not as political opponents, but as strangers who are sources of disease in the sense of impurity, dirt and infection in a sense close to the definition of the anthropologist Mary Douglas.

The emergence of rhetoric stigmatising the stranger could have also been recently observed in reference to another social group, a traditional target of prejudice in many societies, namely the Jews. Paweł Kukiz, a controversial rock musician and leader of the populist movement “Kukiz’15”, which garnered a 15% support in the October parliamentary elections, said recently that the protests of the Committee for the Defence Of Democracy, that is mass demonstrations against the new political course taken by the current government in Warsaw, were financed by “Soros, the American banker of Jewish origin”. Such a statement, “revealing the secret” of a given social group is sponsored by “Jewish money”, fulfills the criteria of anti-Semitic stereotypes described by Theodore Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality. Although such formulations are extremely rare in Polish public debate, one must stress that only a few months ago such a statement would banish any Polish politician from the mainstream. Nothing like that happened now.

Some Polish commentators claim these days that Poland is sliding into an atmosphere resembling the Weimar Republic in the 1930s. This diagnosis seems to be exaggerated, as other oversimplified comparisons of Jarosław Kaczyński to Vladimir Putin etc. But the increased number of abusive and aggressive pronouncements in the public sphere can certainly lead to the shift in what is conventionally regarded as inadmissible or deeply reprehensible in democratic public debate. There is every reason to wonder if we are not dealing with a dangerous process, normalizing chaos and hatred in public debate.

Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń.

Dr Karolina Wigura: Observatory of Public Debate of Liberal Culture (www.obserwatorium.kulturaliberalna.pl), University of Warsaw, University of Oxford.