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Background knowledge and contextualization of implicit meanings

Any instance of language use is always embedded within some context. The notion of context is understood here as a complex and dynamic phenomenon, consisting of several levels. In addition to the verbal (linguistic) co-text, there is a situational context, consisting not only of the immediate physical and social environment within which an utterance is produced but also the “extra-linguistic social and institutional settings of the specific situation of an utterance” (Wodak et al. 1999: 9). Inevitably, context also includes “the intertextual and interdiscursive references in the text” (Wodak et al. 1999: 9), and, more generally, the background knowledge on which discourse participants draw as a shared resource in the process of meaning-making. This is sometimes referred to as “cultural context”, which includes the social, cultural and historical knowledge shared by a rather broad linguistic or national community. The identification of the shared context is a crucial prerequisite for suggesting which cognitive models are activated by the relevant utterances and which inferences the recipients of the utterances, on their basis, can justifiably draw. In other words, this is a search for contexts where recipients find meanings that are optimally relevant for their interpretation (cf. Sperber and Wilson 1995).

As mentioned above, the election poster was interpreted as scandalous and racist, despite appearing inoffensive on the surface. The reason for this was the reception of the message within a specific cultural and situational context that was affected by a number of extra-linguistic social variables. As a result, the poster and the political advertising message which it embodies were interpreted retrospectively (cf. the verbal hint in the main slogan) as continuing the candidate’s past racist discourse, where the unwillingness to modify such attitudes is being presented as a positive character trait.

The understanding of how the two slogans and the matches can be plausibly interpreted as racist depends on some aspects of cultural knowledge that can be assumed to constitute socioculturally shared knowledge on the part of the recipients. In harmony with the discourse- historical approach to text analysis in CDA, this calls for the specification of the extra-linguistic social/sociological variables and of the institutional frames of the specific contexts of situation in Czech politics. More specifically, this includes: some awareness of the politician’s background and past; knowledge of a heavily mediatized case of an anti-Roma arson attack; and familiarity with the political reflection of the Czech-Roma coexistence in the discourse of Czech politics. In the account that follows, more attention is paid to some of the candidate’s controversial remarks because her former racist discourse constitutes the sociocultural background in which her 2010 election slogans are interpreted. Some of the racist remarks are explained in greater detail in order to illustrate the politician’s discursive history that contextualizes the vague metalingual promise in the election slogans. [1]

“This is not a racist act. On the contrary, we want to help the Roma. I see it like this: there are two groups living together-the Roma and the whites, who find it unsuitable. They don’t want to live together. Why shouldn’t then one group do a helpful measure towards the other?”[2]

From a rhetorical perspective, the utterance is a classic example of racist discourse, since it contains several of the strategies labelled as “typical” by van Dijk (1992a). Most clearly, the extract above has the underlying argumentative structure of apparent denial of racism (“I’m not racist but...”). Noteworthy is also the attempt to redefine the issue: the negative act of the politician (representing the in-group) towards the minority is, in fact, interpreted as positive and helpful for the out-group. Van Dijk (1992a) refers to this semantic move as apparent sympathy: the racist acts are presented as being done for the others’ good. Presenting something negative as, in fact, positive is a characteristic feature of racist discourse and is often accompanied by a mock disbelief that someone could construe such actions as negative.

In this instance, while the politician is encouraging the emigration of the Roma, the physical removal is perversely explained as a good act benefiting those who emigrate. Ultimately, the semantic move of apparent sympathy contributes to the positive self-presentation, while completely disregarding the complex causes of Roma emigration. Understandably, the avoidance of the issue lessens the possibility that some potentially negative aspects of “our” behaviour towards “them” might be revealed.

During her first term in the Senate (and as a member of the human rights committee), Janackova found herself embroiled in another major scandal (one that even led to the loss of her parliamentary immunity and a subsequent official investigation) when a tape was leaked in 2007, a recording of an earlier council debate on social problems in a locality into which an increased number of Roma were moved. Once again, the unusually candid text is replete with semantic moves common in racist discourse, e.g. the transfer (reversal of blame) move, according to which the real victim is the white majority in-group (cf. “we are all discriminated against”):

“Unfortunately I have to take care of gypsies. If the air tickets had been successful, they would have re-bred to the earlier figures. So you are discriminated against, we are all discriminated against, I agree with you completely. But unfortunately that’s the way it is. And I have to do my best to move you out somewhere. I don’t agree with any integration, unfortunately I’m a racist, I don’t agree with the integration of gypsies so they’d be spread out across the whole municipal part. Unfortunately, we have chosen the Bedriska settlement, so they will be here. With a high fence, with electricity, I don’t care, I don’t mind shouting that to the entire world...”[3]

This leaked tape is interesting because it contains utterances which were not meant for media circulation, although they were uttered at an official city council meeting (the discourse is then “semi-public”: neither entirely private nor openly public). This probably explains why the politician openly acknowledges her identity as a racist, even though, as van Dijk (1997: 38) argues, “for the political elites, racism is always elsewhere ”. Subsequently, Janackova attempted to deny her authorship of some of the utterances in the recording, resorting to the flimsy excuse that they were made in “a similar voice by another woman”.[4] The flimsiness of the excuse illustrates how well the politician is aware of the social norms which do not permit the explicit, on-record disparagement of minority groups in public (cf. van Dijk 1992a). This contrasts with semi-public and private contexts where racist discourse does not need to be veiled behind the public values of tolerance, plurality, restraint, etc. Consequently, semipublic and private utterances, when made public, may suddenly seem shocking, on account of their lacking the usual hedges, mitigations, excuses, explanations and other rhetorical strategies that are so common in public discourse.

On the level of more local meanings, in her speech (whose authenticity she initially disputed, as noted above) Janackova repeatedly uses the derogatory ethnic slur “cigani” [“gypsies”] as a nomination strategy to refer to the out-group (cf. Reisigl and Wodak 2001). This contrasts with the politically correct expression “Romove” [“the Roma”], which she uses in public, media-oriented discourse. Typically racist is the use of the verb “domnozit se” [approximately “re-breed” or “multiply/breed to the earlier numbers”], since “mnozit se” tends to be used with animals rather than humans. The metaphorical presentation of the members of the out-group as animals-i.e. their dehumanization-appears to be relatively common as an extreme strategy of discursive “othering” (cf. Santa Ana 1999, El Refaie 2001, Chovanec 2010a).

In March 2010, there was an arson attack in the Bedfiska community: an inflammable bottle was thrown into one of the houses. The local people blamed, among other, Mayor Janackova’s racist rhetoric.[5] This is further evidence of the fact that the anti-Roma sentiment and more-or-less open racist discourse came to be associated quite closely with the public image of the candidate and represented her identity as a politician even before the autumn 2010 election campaign being considered in this chapter.

  • (2) The Vitkov arson attack. In April 2009, four young men committed an arson attack on an unsuspecting Roma family in the village of Vitkov in North Moravia, not far from the city of Ostrava (the Senate candidate’s constituency). The attack, committed by young right-wing extremists who threw an incendiary bottle through a window in the middle of the night, resulted in the complete destruction of the house and serious injuries to a two-year-old girl named Natalka, who suffered burns to 80 per cent of her body. The events were widely covered in the media, as was the fate of the family and the subsequent treatment of the girl who has been left disfigured for life. The arsonists were sentenced in October 2010-which was at the same time as the Senate election campaign-to 22 and 20 years’ imprisonment. It was, in all probability, the temporal coincidence between the court’s judgment and the climax of the election campaign that favoured the public’s interpretation of the box of matches as a symbol of racially motivated anti-Roma violence, rather than just a “practical gift”, as Janackova tried to claim.[6]
  • (3) Relative acceptability of racist discourse in Czech politics. Several prior cases have shown that Czech politicians (of various political backgrounds) tend to use the racial card to win support from their electorate. Even though such cases have met with strong negative reception from the public and the media, there has rarely been an outright denouncement by other politicians of the unacceptability of such a discourse.[7] Racist comments in Czech politics have not led to the politicians being held personally responsible or of being forced to step down from their offices; on the contrary, an uncompromising stance on the Roma population (or, more generally, “scroungers”, “benefit-seekers”, “the unaccommodating”, etc., which are often used as euphemisms for the Roma) has sometimes served as a stepping stone from regional politics to national politics.

Given this contextualization, the election slogan “I nadale budu nkat, co si my slim!” [I will keep on saying what I think] implicitly communicates that the candidate will not change her openly racist verbal behaviour known from the past that makes her such a controversial figure. In other words, the slogan can, by implication, be read as “I will not be politically correct”, and, more specifically, as “I will not stop speaking out against the Roma”.

The politician’s previous political career was, to a significant degree, defined in terms of racist rhetoric based on the dichotomous opposition of “US” vs. “THEM”. The “US” is constituted by the majority population and the “THEM” consists of the minority ethnic group of the Roma. As Janackova’s self-categorization from the recent past (“I’m a racist”) shows, she is aware of this divide and is able to articulate on which side she stands. She does not avoid the ethnic slur “cigani” [“gypsies”] in semipublic discourse, although she switches to the official and neutral “Romove” [“the Roma”] when speaking to the media.[8] This indicates that she purposefully tones down her phrasing in order both to avoid excessive provocation and remain within the bounds of public acceptability, since the use of ethnic slurs in public is highly discrediting: it is connected with rather extreme right-wing contexts.

  • [1] Liana Janackova’s political career. Janackova has been known forhighly controversial statements towards the Roma throughout her politicalcareer. As the mayor of one of the municipalities of Ostrava, shecontributed to the concentration (sometimes referred to as segregation) ofthe Roma in certain localities. In 1997, as a local politician in Ostrava, sheencouraged the emigration of the Roma to Canada by suggesting theyshould be paid an indirect financial contribution towards the price of theair tickets in exchange for giving up rent agreements to their council flats.She issued the following comment on her idea:
  • [2] The original in Czech: “Nejde o rasisticky cin. Naopak, chceme Romum pomoci.Vidlm to tak, ze spolu ziji dve skupiny-Romove a bill, kterym to nevyhovuje.Nechtiji spolu zit. Proc by tedy jedna skupina nemohla udelat vstricny krok vucidruhe?” (Source:
  • [3] The original in Czech: “...O cigany se bohuzel starat muslm. Kdyby to tehdy stimi letenkami vyslo, oni by se domnozili zase. Takze jste diskriminovanl, vsichnijsme diskriminovanl, ja s vami naprosto souhlasim. Ale bohuzel je to tak. A muslmse snazit, abych vas nikam vystehovala. Nesouhlasim s jakoukoli integracl,bohuzel jsem rasistka, nesouhlasim s integracl ciganu, aby plosni byli po obvodu.Bohuzel, vybrali jsme Bedrisku, takze tam budou. S vysokym plotem, s elektrikou,mne je to jedno, ja to klidne budu kricet do celeho sveta...” (Source:
  • [4] “Ja jsem nerekla uplne vsechno, co tam je. To byl jiny hlas. Byla tam nejaka panl,ktera ma podobny hlas jako ja.” [I did not say completely everything that’s there.That was a different voice. There was some lady who has a similar voice to mine.](Source:
  • [5] It was eventually established that the act of violence was the result of an intraethnic dispute rather than right-wing inter-ethnic hatred, as was the case in someother arson attacks, most infamously the 2009 Vitkov incident. (Source:
  • [6] When asked to comment, Janackova brushed aside the racist connotations of hercampaign as follows: "Souvislost s Vltkovem me vubec nenapadla. Sirky jsou prakticky darek,ktery lidi na rozdll od letaku nevyhodl." [A connection with Vitkov has notoccurred to me at all. Matches are a practical gift that people will notthrow away, unlike a leaflet.] Another comment indicates that, in public contexts, the politician equates racismwith killing. This public proclamation stands in conflict to what she admits aboutherself in semi-public contexts. By exaggerating the publicly proclaimed definitionof racism, the politician, in fact, reinforces her claim that she is not a racist. (Forsimilar observations about the semantics of the word, see van Dijk 1992.) "To je hyenismus! Nejsem zadny rasista, abych nabadala lidi k vrazdeni.Natalky je mi strasne llto, nedovedu si predstavit, ze by se neco takovehostalo memu diteti. " [That is hyenism! I’m no racist to entice people to kill. I’m awfully sorry for Natalka, I can’t imagine something like thathappening to my child.] (Comments made on 20 October 2010.)
  • [7] For instance, the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, himself known for hisconservative and controversial statements, declined to make any comment onJanackova’s racial remarks in 2007. The next year, Janackova was saved from apolice investigation of the alleged offence of a “racial slur” for her 2007 statementsthanks to the support of Senators from the ruling Civic Democratic Party, whovoted against the motion to strip her of parliamentary immunity and to expose herto criminal investigation (cf.: It has been suggested that Janackova’svote was among the decisive votes during the 2008 re-election of Klaus to hissecond term in office, although she herself vehemently denied any connection(“Klaus pripustil moznost debaty se Svejnarem”, 10.1.2008, Hospodarske noviny).As regards the 2010 autumn election campaign under discussion here, the PrimeMinister Petr Necas did not distance himself from the racist implications ofJanackova’s controversial campaign. Instead, he supported her candidacy to theSenate in the second round of the election against another candidate-despitewidespread criticism from his own party.
  • [8] Cf. the politician’s comments made in an interview for on 10 July2007: “A komu se mam omlouvat? Jestli jsem se dotkla nejakeho Roma, tak ja semu pujdu osobm omluvit.” [And who should I apologize to? If I hurt some Roma, Iwill personally go and apologize to him.] (Source:
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