Reading Natalia Chincul’s article on gay rights in Russia and the newly introduced law prohibiting “gay propaganda”, the first thought that crossed my mind is that the discrimination of ideologies and behaviours follows the same strategies everywhere. Natalia gave us the opportunity to think about the Russian example and in my turn I will try to give some food for thought on a Greek example, equally violating and disappointing.
Presenting the Other as an “enemy” or a “threat” is one of the oldest and probably the most popular and effective way to justify and spread discriminatory attitudes. Those who have the power to shape public discourse are always fond of the polarization between “us” and “them” - and when they say “us” they always mean “the good, the useful, the respectable us” and when they say “them” they always mean “the bad, the weird, the dangerous others”. This polarization, in order to be successful, needs to seem justifiable and for this has to be constant and subtle. Those who know about discourse analysis have the tools to easily see what is written or said between the lines but any of us can understand a lot if we pay attention to the words that are used to “present” a social issue to the public.
Starting from the Russian law against “gay propaganda” I ask you to think of the word propaganda. What does it mean? Most of the dictionaries agree on the following: It is a form of communication which aims to influence the attitudes of a community towards a specific direction. Propaganda statements do not focus on providing information but on shaping opinions and on influencing behaviours. They include fragments of truth “clothed” with lies and they never present more than one side of the argument, the side in favor of the individual or group who is spreading the propaganda. As a word and a notion it has a strongly negative connotation; propaganda is associated with repetition, brain-washing and historically with the Nazis. Don’t forget that Goebbels is considered the “father” of propaganda, nor the role of the Communist Soviet Union in the Second World War.
After re-considering the meaning of propaganda, we can understand that this word was not selected by chance from the Russian communication consultants. Talking about “gay propaganda”: what is the message that has to be passed? Is it probably that gay people – they – are trying to influence us -the public. THEY don’t make real statements but spread lies. THEY are everywhere and THEY keep repeating what THEY say because THEY want to brain wash US and influence OUR behaviour for THEIR own interests. THEY have the power to mislead and manipulate US, THEY are strong and dangerous like the Nazis. WE have to protect OURSELVES from THEM, WE have to ban each of their actions because otherwise THEY will destroy US…
One could argue that I exaggerate, but to this I would answer they following: would the same law gain equal support if promoted as law “against equal rights for all” or law “against antidiscrimination” or even just as law “against gay campaigns”?
Let us now shift to the Greek case. It has been almost two months that Greek police, under the orders of the Minister of Citizen’s Protection, has been conducting a Special Operational Action in Thessaloniki, the biggest city of North Greece, with, according to the governmental public statement, the aim to “tackle, among others, prostitution and the exploitation of the sexual life of socially and economically vulnerable individuals, to enhance citizens’ feeling of safety, and to improve the image of specific areas”. Surprisingly, this operational plan is in reality the harassment and undue arrests of transgender women and sex workers that have been taking place almost everyday since the end of May. Transgender women have been systematically subjected to arbitrary ID checks, arrests and detentions for even three or four days without legal justification. European media and LGBT organizations have reported extensively on the state of affairs, so I will not focus on the situation itself but on the way it has been presented to the public by governmental representatives.
First of all - the name of the relevant ministry. “Ministry of Citizen’s Protection” implies at least that the Greek citizen is threatened and needs protection. Reading the governmental statement, one also learns about a “special operational plan” by the police. What can we make from that? Why is the world “special” used? If anything, it means that this is not a usual situation, but an operation with specific characteristics. One does not have a clue, however, as to what these specific characteristics are refering to. Is it a “special operation” because it is taking place in unique circumstances or because it is using a singular method or maybe because it affects only a specific social group?
Continuing the reading of the statement, one gets an idea about the aims of this operation. Among others – that remain unknown - the operation aims to tackle prostitution and exploitation of the sexual life of socially and economically vulnerable individuals, to enhance citizens’ feeling of safety”. It is important here to note the differentiation of the concepts of “individuals” and “citizens”. It seems that the two categories are not referring to the same people and their use is associated with different connotations. The “vulnerable individuals” get exploited and prostituted; they are socially and economically weak, while “citizens” are threatened. Still, there is no reference to who is exploiting the individuals and who is threatening the citizens. One can fill in this gap with anything… Also, it is important to note that the “vulnerable” are not described as “citizens”. “Citizen” implies a member of a state, a member of a group – a whole, a person with political and civil rights. On the other hand, “individual” is much less strong a word. It implies a random unit with no association with rights. The combination of words also reveals something else. On the one hand, the word “individuals” is used in the same phrase as the words “vulnerable”, “tackle”, “prostitution” and “exploitation”, which all have a negative meaning. On the other hand, the word “citizens” goes together with words with a positive meaning, “enhance” and “safety”. Directly, a clear contradiction is formed: On the one side, we have the good citizens, with rights and safety that should be enhanced and on the other side, we have the less good, the “weak”, who are involved in bad situations and problems that police have to “solve”. There is no reference to how it happened and why these individuals are vulnerable both socially and economically. This is taken for granted and since there is no justification, it is considered as their “natural characteristic”. They are vulnerable, true…but were they born like this?
Going on with the statement, we gain more interesting information. This operation aims to “improve the image of the city”. Who is spoiling the “image of the city”? The answer can be found earlier in the text. It is the prostitutes and the exploited that spoil the image of the city. And who are they? The “vulnerable individuals.
The public statement stops here, but reality goes on and is summarized in the unjustifiable arrests of transgender women and sex workers. Police’s special operation is concentrated on these specific actions. What does one conclude in the end? That transgender women and sex workers form a lower social group which differs from the citizens, and constitute a problem that should be tackled, threaten citizen’s safety and spoil the image of the city…? The governmental representative would want us to feel “yes”…
Discrimination is imposed explicitly by the authorities in both examples. Before we start to think of the consequences of discrimination, understanding the way that it is cultivated is equally important. After all, words always matter…