Accessibility links

Former Yugoslavia: The Language Of Hate Persists

  • Patrick Moore

Prague, 24 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Most analyses of the developments in the former Yugoslavia in the past ten years have stressed the role played by the nationalist official media on all sides in fermenting ethnic hatred. Those media conveyed and continue to convey a large part of their negative message not just in the way they select subject matter for their reports, but in their use of language itself.

Part of the nationalists' manipulation of language has involved imposing rules of political correctness upon individual speakers and writers, both in the media and in public life in general. This has sometimes led to unintended, amusing results as individuals struggle to affect a supposedly "pure" speech for their ethnic group, which is based on a dialect spoken hundreds of miles from where those individuals were born or where they live. This is because the differences between Serbo-Croatian dialects are based on geography, not on ethnicity. It thus appears artificial when the Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic affects the "real" Serbian of Belgrade.

But the language of hatred goes beyond mere political correctness. It involves selecting loaded terms that serve to demonize an entire ethnic group. Last week (November 14) RFE/RL discussed the phenomenon with social scientists and journalists from Croatia.

One participant noted that the language of hatred did not begin with the rise to power of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic a decade ago. It has its roots in the communist, totalitarian practice of mobilizing support by blackening those who dare to have different opinions. It reflects an us-against-them mentality.

By using ethnic pejoratives, nationalists can easily characterize members of other nationalities in the blackest of terms. Thus, until recently, the Croatian official media regularly used the term "Srbocetnik" -- linking the Serbian ethnic group as a whole with the chetnik rebel fighters -- to characterize all Serbs as anti-Croatian.

The Serbian media, for their part, conjured up Serbs' worst memories of Croatian war crimes against Serbs during World War II by lumping all Croats together as "Ustashe," the fanatical followers of Hitler's ally Ante Pavelic. The Muslims' wartime enemies, finally, characterized them as "fundamentalists." This term served to identify even secular individuals -- who happened to be descended from people who had embraced Islam -- with the most hardened religious fanatics. In short, an entire nationality was tarred with the same brush.

The social scientists and opposition journalists told RFE/RL that they are pessimistic about the chances of overcoming the language of hatred and its legacy even now that peace has come.

First, the us-against-them mentality reflected in the language of hatred was propagated by the communists throughout society for over 40 years and hence will be difficult to eliminate quickly.

Second, the new states that emerged from Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia were born amid hatred, as one panelist put it. Thus, he argued, hatred is already an internal component of these countries' domestic politics and is likely to remain so for many years to come. War only served to reinforce the negative feelings.

Third, the trends toward political correctness that developed during the war remain and continue to be reinforced not only by the official media but by the school system as well. Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim children learn from books written in artificially "pure" languages. The texts, moreover, portray each respective people's history in only the most glowing of terms. This helps ensure that the us-against-them mentality will be passed on even to generations too young to remember the recent fighting.

But is their a way to break the vicious circle of ethnic hatred? Panelists told RFE/RL that the negative system of values must be opposed by a positive one based on tolerance. This can come about only by promoting a civil society and by developing democratic institutions.