In a recent election campaign, one of the candidates for the Czech senate used posters and distributed promotional materials that were widely criticized by the public and the media as racist and xenophobic. The public outrage concerned the interpretation of a message that, on the surface, appeared not to be offensive at all. However, what was found beyond the limits of public acceptability was the fact that the politician also distributed her slogan on a box of matches that came to be interpreted as a racist symbol-and even a potential invitation to ethnic violence.
Racist discourse tends to be covert (cf. van Dijk 1992b). It communicates veiled, ambiguous, indeterminate meanings that are often expressed symbolically and metaphorically, typically drawing on presupposed information that is physically absent from texts. A common feature of such rhetoric is that the implicit meanings are-given the specific context-quite obvious, yet deniable by the speakers who, when pressured, defensively appeal to literal meanings.
The point is that racist and other discriminatory discourse tends to be heavily intertextual, with local meanings contextualized by prior discourses and texts that the recipients are familiar with. Thus, in the material under analysis, the election slogan constitutes a metalingual promise that has a two-fold orientation: retrospective towards the politician’s past, as well as prospective towards her future. In this way, it combines past and (anticipated) future discourses. This form of intertextuality is crucial in constructing the implicit identity of the candidate and suitably positioning the recipients who can then use presupposed information to arrive at the preferred interpretations (cf. van Dijk 2006) of the covert message. Yet, the implicitness of the candidate’s statements means that dispreferred interpretations may be dismissed as incorrect.