The term “lying press” [Lügenpresse] is just one example that is accompanied by an increasing number of hostility and physical attacks on journalists. On the internet there are often extermination fantasies about people marked as “different” and “foreign” – or those who support the welcoming culture. It is also possible to refer to the sexualized threats against female representatives of gender studies.
Terms like “lying press” [Lügenpresse] and “do-gooders” [Gutmenschen] have found their way into our everyday language. Is this a deliberate strategy of right wing parties or a side effect associated with the right-wing debate?
No, this is a conscious and deliberate attempt to occupy and conquer the prerogative of interpretation in social discourses. The extreme and populist right has grappled with this task for a long time. The function of the terms you mentioned is that of denouncing political opponents and citizens engaged in solidarity and attacking their attitudes. The regular reading of right-wing publications promotes a multitude of texts that deal with language policy issues. Liberals and left-wing social forces are accused of wanting to change society through language – think on the allegations of “political correctness,” for example. In fact, however, the extreme and populist right itself appears accordingly.
The AfD and other right-wing parties are counting on the “division” of society. “Us against you” or rather “you against us” – what role does language play in this context?
Language is a central factor since it constitutes a substantial part of communication among people. Terms and figures of speech are used to assess how social movements are valued, who is recognized as a legitimate speaker, which concepts of order are necessary and appropriate – and also how the central question of belonging is discussed. Questions of affiliation and recognition can be discussed linguistically based on various criteria. Traditional racial superiority refers to “race” or “ethnicity,” which is tied to certain physical attributes and character traits. However, because these traits are not (and cannot be) directly recognizable, contrary to the racists’ claims, certain markers have to indicate that a person belongs to a particular group that is stigmatized as “the others”. That was also a function of the so-called “Star of David”. This yellow badge was only able to fulfill this function because it was embedded in corresponding discourses of exclusion and devaluation.
However, verbally expressed racism, is often subtler – what linguistic devices does this rhetoric use?
In cultural racism, features and attributions that revolve around culture and religion emerge to the forefront. In many cases, these are practically naturalized. But they are also associated with other meanings, such as the productivity of social groups. Therefore, I am convinced that this perspective for understanding extreme and populist right-wing policies is still disregarded too often. As this works strongly with the image of the “hard-working people” who are denied the fruits of their labor; on the one hand by the “corrupt elite,” on the other hand by the “lazy subclasses,” thus either Sinti and Roma, refugees, the homeless and the long-term unemployed, but also “the lazy Greeks”. This demagogic confrontation and political slandering is highly linked to common sense and perception and connects with other figures of thought, such as penal populism, in which the lower classes are marked as dangerous. The “law-abiding citizens” must guard himself against those, if necessary with self-help.
Let’s go into detail: The term “the people” [Volk] played a big role in the AfD’s campaign. In Clausnitz, Saxony, refugees who wanted to get off a bus were attacked by right-wing advocates who shouted, “We are the people!” [Wir sind das Volk!]. What do the right-wing people mean by “the people” and how do they use the term?
The term “the people” is a central concept of the political right insofar as it refers to the core of their world view, that is, the assumption that there are collectives whose members are interlinked by ancestry, history, language, and space in a specific way and that they can be clearly distinguished from other collectives. The right-wing basically think as “peoples,” as one of their theorists put it. Therefore, the right does not think of individuals or of social classes – these are other ways to organize social order. In this nationalist logic, peoples are acting subjects and must assert themselves against other peoples – economically, territorially, culturally and, if you like, bio-politically. The latter logic addresses issues of migration, but also issues of birth control. That was the basic premise of Thilo Sarrazin’s bestseller: From his perspective, peoples are able to survive if they keep the “foreign influence” as low as possible.
Historically speaking, this ethnic assumption has produced numerous terms such as “national being” [Volkheit] and “allegiance to the nation” [volkstreu]. These terms are used less today. The AfD also repeatedly demanded to reevaluate the concept of “ethnic” [völkisch]. It is a central concept of the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany).
How does the slogan “We are the people” fit into this picture?
The slogan “We are the people” resonates with the demarcation to the “others”. Above all, however, it creates a contrast between “the people” and the political and media elite. In relation to both groups, it is pretended that these are homogeneous groups distinguished by typical behaviors and character traits. The message is, “You, the elites, do not represent us, we are the majority and the foundation which you have to comply with in your decision makings.” This is an abbreviated understanding of democracy as it lacks, in particular, the correlation to human as well as fundamental rights. On the one hand, the appealing aspect of the slogan has to do with the fact that it is very open to interpretation, and therefore does not necessarily have to be read from a nationalist perspective. On the other hand, this specific slogan refers to a specific historical constellation, namely the Monday demonstrations 1989/90 in the GDR. This is where the slogan draws its strong legitimation from. For the number of people who use this slogan once again, it is associated with the idea that there may be an imminent regime change.
In the United States, Donald Trump celebrated an electoral victory with the slogan “Make America Great Again”. He further promised to “drain the swamp,” which in his opinion is made up of the corrupt political establishment in Washington. Does a universal right-wing language exist, or might it vary based on different countries and political parties?
Basic ideologues and linguistic expressions are often very similar because from a nationalist perspective, it is always about an “own people’s” or the “own nation” first policy. Repeatedly, it can be observed that specific wordings are taken on by one national context from another. The phrase “the great replacement” [Grand Replacement] which originates from an author of the extreme right-wing in France, has also found its way into texts in Germany. At the same time, however, the terms also link to different historical contexts that exist in the respective countries. References which are intended to support the claim of a “great replacement” have to, for people from the respective societies, be part of the interpretation of their everyday experiences and be catchy so that they can be effective in terms of propaganda.
The right-wing populists of the AfD call themselves an alternative. In the United States, the so-called “alt-right” movement is gaining strength, and it also sees itself as an alternative, a traditional left-wing word in politics. Why does the right embrace this language?
In the past, “alternative” may have been widely used by groups of the political left-wing – think of the Alternative List Berlin. But it is certainly not a genuinely left term, so it is open to interpretation. The right-wing has adopted the term at a time when parties are little distinguishable based on many political questions and governmental decision making – in particular the euro rescue policy – have been described as having no alternatives. This has irritated a considerable part of the population. Therefore, the party has opted to use the term as part of the party’s name. Even the immediate precursor of the AfD was called “Election Alternative 2013” [Wahlalternative 2013].
In your opinion: Does the transition of vocabulary, which is primarily used by right-wing political actors, into the everyday language demonstrate a danger for society?
First, it is important to remember that language and terms have an influence on structure perception and thinking processes. Indirectly it often has an impact on actions as well. If one follows the speech act theory it can be said that speaking is an action as well, which influences societal reality. Therefore, it is possible to feed right-wing vocabulary into the discourses of society or even supposedly high-value words, which allegedly generate positive emotions, such as “freedom”. Thus, these are linked with specifically right-wing interpretations, thereby shifting semantic fields and pushing back democratic content.
How can a democratic society identify the language of the right-wing and what can it do about it?
This development can be counteracted by promoting a language sensitivity. This means that we become aware of the power of language beyond simplifying manipulation theories; that we visualize the historicity of certain concepts and the language policies of the right-wing. In addition, this is also about seeking to avoid terms that explicitly or implicitly convey negative images or to stabilize stereotypes if they seem inappropriate. Finally, I would like to agree with Judith Butler that the responsibility of speakers is not to reinvent language, but to deal with the legacy of their use, which restricts or makes the respective speech act.
Interviewer: Martin Böhmer
Translation: Hannah Riegert-Wirtz
Prof. Dr Fabian Virchow
University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf