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12.11.2008 | Halya Coynash

Without labels

   

We may sometimes be unsure which of the identical twins in our block we saw on the street but eyebrows would be raised if their parents needed identity tags so as not to mix them up. One egg, the same genome, yet they are two unmistakeably separate human beings,  Labels do, of course, simplify matters – the more intelligent twin, the violinist … or the homosexual, the one with a disability. 

The Nazis understood the advantages of branding people.  Myths abound, but impossible not to recall the reaction of Danish King Christian X when told that the Nazis might try to force Jews in Denmark to wear the Star of David – “Perhaps we should all wear it”. Nor can we forget that the Danes saved most of their fellow citizens whom the Nazis wished to exterminate as Jews.

  Perhaps it was the elderly King’s response which prompted the initiators of “Pink triangle week” to call on people to wear a pink triangle in memory of those murdered as homosexuals.  ‘The reaction of my schoolmates taught me a lot, although I will say now that the lesson has nothing to do with understanding. I have never been able to comprehend the roots of the aggression and rejection of a person who stands out, and I don’t want to.  I don’t even think that my classmates saw the seditious pink triangle as reflecting my sexuality. It was the seditious person who aroused their animosity – not one of them and not even trying to hide it.  By the end of the week, the antagonism was palpable. 

  The Nazis knew what they were doing.

  The lessons learned were about damage limitation. I am writing these words on the seventieth anniversary of Kristalnacht, however the same microbes ran rampant throughout the Soviet Union at that time, killing our relatives, and to this day they spread infection, including in the mass media.

  There are serious failings in the system in Ukraine with lack of clarity in the law, corruption, few mechanisms for realistically gaining redress against those who spread hatred.  For all their importance, I mention them only briefly here for one reason: Such problems require political will from others and allow us to pass the buck or balk at the enormity of the task.  It is huge, and there is no such condition as absolute health.  However fighting microbes is something we can all take part in.

  In the last year we have seen concentrated efforts to foist upon Ukrainians the stereotype of Nazi-lovers and anti-Semites.  Two efforts were easily refutable – the Hitler doll scam and a fictitious “anti-Semitic pogrom” in Lviv.  One – by Michael Prazan was no closer to the truth yet harder to fight since more historical detail was required to demonstrate distortions. This immediately meant that a layperson audience was unlikely to ever discover where the lies lay.  We need to react yet it’s desirable to bear in mind what those virtual puppeteers are seeking to achieve and what grubby methods they use so as to not inadvertently help them.

Before analyzing the techniques used to ferment hatred and intolerance, it is worth considering why a very large number of Ukrainians did object.  They were confronted with lies of a vicious nature that were deeply hurtful for many of us whose relatives fought the Nazis and who do not suffer from anti-Semitism.  It is also absurdly, insultingly unfair, to draw conclusions about people in today’s Ukraine based on what some Ukrainians may – or may not – have done around 60 years ago.

I believe we are foolish to worry only about our image in the world community while scarcely reacting at all to the lies which roam through the Russian and some Ukrainian media, feeding people with outmoded and pernicious myths. All mindless stereotypes need to be derided and rejected.

We assert our right to live without labels yet pin them on others as we like. I am not Georgian however can imagine how hurt many Georgians and Ukrainians of Georgian origin must feel when the heads of the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] feel the need to share their impressions about the people who commit crimes in Ukraine. I do mean impressions since they do not back them up with any facts or serious data.

It has become bad form to not talk of a rise in xenophobia in Ukraine and of measures to counter this. The trouble is that we hear about the MIA’s fight against racism while at the same time reading reports from the Ministry’s own Public Liaison Centre which not only entirely disregard the presumption of innocence, but are also worrying selective where they mention nationality. As a result the media is full of staggeringly intolerant reports and we find readers more than willing to trust MIA officials who lead them to believe that all would be well were it not for people of this or that nationality.

No solution to the problem is offered of course, however one gains the impression that the law enforcement officers are protecting us. We see, after all, who they approach in the metro or on the street, whose papers they check. Why exactly they stop the people and how that helps to reduce crime we don’t actually know, however we ask no questions. The media are satisfied with cheap sensation and are also in no hurry to ask uncomfortable questions. And some of the public “know” who is to blame for all our ills. Why complicate life?

Sorry to be pedantic, but that rhetorical question requires an answer. We need to confront the issue in all its complexity for the sake of justice and to avoid creating other problems.  What chance does a child have who sees that his schoolmates’ parents don’t want him around their children, who encounters at each step distrust and assumptions about his likely future?

At around the same time as the scandal over the “Hitler doll”, an article by Natalya Astakhova was published in the newspaper “Krymskaya Pravda”. I’d like to think that the author does not once mention the name of the group of people she so attacks out of fear of ending up in court, however there would seem no grounds. The prosecutor’s office has already refused on one occasion to launch criminal proceedings under Article 161 of the Criminal Code (inciting ethnic enmity) on the grounds that the author is supposedly expressing only a value judgment. It has been sitting on the second formal complaint for many months now.  It is more likely that the target of so much hatred goes unnamed so as to draw the readers in, create an apparent bond between them and the author, forming a united “us” against “them”.

One could write a whole dissertation on the articles against Crimean Tatars published by Natalya Astakhova. If there is no adequate response from the law enforcement agencies, it will be necessary to add an investigation into why such a shameful example of hate speech inciting enmity has been on the first page of the site under “most read articles” all these months. It is worth remembering that within a month and a half virtually all western sites which posted reports about the “Hitler doll” had removed them. Not immediately, and there is no need to delude oneself as to their reasons, however that’s on their conscience. The important thing is that the outrageous lies disappeared.

There are any number of xenophobic texts in the Crimean press and futile to hope that they are written by a few mentally disturbed individuals.

I do not plan to consider the possible sources of the lies or the motives of those who foist various stereotypes. I will confine myself to certain considerations which preclude hasty conclusions. The idiocy of some of the accusations and glaring mistakes which are easy to refute are, for example, mind-boggling. On the other hand I have long understood that the willingness of big companies to spend huge amounts of money on unbelievably mindless advertisements for, say, washing powder, is not due to a lack of other ways of wasting their money. They clearly know their market better than I do. It seems wise to apply the same logic to the diseased lies which are circulated through the media and Internet.

If we return to our indignation over defamatory articles, another motive becomes clear. A lot of people feel anger and frustration that they can be open, tolerant and devoid of any harmful prejudices and yet there will still be people who accuse them of every possible sin. Or not them, but their ancestors, or not even necessarily their own ancestors, however they somehow still bear responsibility. Each of the articles about Ukrainians mentioned above produced responses where one already senses irritation, if not worse, towards people of a particular nationality. Thus the aim of the disinformation does not have to be solely in spreading lies, and there may well be more than one target of manipulation.

There is obviously also an additional explanation for the low quality of cheap tricks and shoddy reports. Why burden yourself with preparing refined dishes when people let themselves be fed primitive low-grade rubbish?

One example will suffice, that of an article with the headline: “KEBAB MEAT SOAKED IN FORMALIN: that’s how Arab vendors stopped their goods from going off”. I couldn’t tell you whether the headline is true. I know only that it has absolutely no connection with the tragic death of two children from food poisoning in Vinnytsa. If you read the text carefully, the redundancy of the headline does become plain.  The question arises: why have a redundant headline?  A purely rhetorical question admittedly if we think of who the reader already “suspects” before having read the article. And I in turn suspect that very many readers will continue to connect the death of those children with “Arabs”.

No idea whether this is done deliberately. Or at least I am sure that the journalist did not name the article in this way by chance. We can all provide numerous examples which reflect a wish to attract attention, entertain the reader at the expense of one or other ethnic or religious group, etc. Whether this is always accompanied by the aim of inciting enmity and consolidating destructive myths and prejudice, I would not like to say.  No such doubts are warranted as regards the result.

We can await the appearance of decent politicians who will at long last set about solving the problem, for radical changes in both the mentality and work of the law enforcement agencies. We can wait for that old glorious future – after all we never did get to see it. However the texts are infecting people here and now and in my view we’ve waited long enough. And it’s possible to do without ideal politicians and a media who are concerned only for the good of society. In many Euro-Atlantic countries the most effective mechanism for fighting primitive hate speech is public condemnation. The public need to decide whether they want to tolerate attempts to manipulate them and stir up tension and intolerance.

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