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A Rotten Language

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, the slogans of communism - and its opponents - still haunt public discourse.
Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, the slogans of communism - and its opponents - still haunt public discourse.
Editor’s Note: This essay was a runner-up in a contest of student essays sponsored by the Vaclav Havel Library to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

We are enjoying our freedom of speech. We have the ability to express ourselves on particular topics and to do so in open public spaces and the mass media. But we must nonetheless express our beliefs within the limits and the terms of language itself.

Writers and philosophers have long recognized that totalitarianism contains within itself an important language element. And the communist regimes of Central Europe were no exception. The native languages of the region -- including Czech -- experienced a violent upheaval in the meanings of old words, a torrent of newly created words, and the widespread introduction of what can only be called “empty phrases.”

The result of this was not limited to the post-1948 coup period or the post-1968 “normalization” period. If language forms our thoughts (and vice versa), then totalitarianism has marked us in a fundamental way, has marked our imaginations, our associations, and our unconscious thought patterns.

Such patterns can persist unchanged long after the collapse of a totalitarian system. But more often they go on to live their own lives. They insinuate themselves into the native language and penetrate new contexts. We still encounter them 20 years later.

Relics of the old communist lexicon represent pure fragments of totalitarian thinking. But because they are easy to detect, they aren’t as insidious as the many seemingly meaningless phrases and concepts that still bear and pass on the stigma of the lack of freedom that accompanied their genesis. This lack of freedom adheres to the ideas and even the actions of people who consciously think they left it behind long ago.

What kinds of phrases am I talking about? Actually, they can be found everywhere, since the 40-year communist regime touched all spheres of people’s lives. Science, religion, and high art were somewhat spared because they were removed from the public space, but popular culture, the media, and public discourse soaked up the communist ideology much more.

From Private To Public Speech

One topic is particularly interesting to look at: the theme of the communist regime itself. From the beginning of so-called normalization until November 1989, the official version of the regime dominated the public arena. Meanwhile, a constant conversation about its development and a genuine critique of it was conducted independently, behind closed doors, mostly in the confines of intellectual households.

But during the 1989 events, that private discussion suddenly emerged from behind those closed doors and, in the space of just a few days, took over the public sphere. But in doing so, it had to adapt itself to the environment of being addressed to crowds of hundreds of thousands instead of small gatherings of just a dozen or so. This adjustment was determined by the need for comprehensibility and reproducibility.

But the urgent need to express opinions about the existing social system (from inside that system and to audiences that were also inside it) required adaptations to the specific conditions of the public sphere that existed in pre-November 1989 Czechoslovakia -- i.e., a public sphere weighed down by propaganda and the related deformation of language. Under these conditions, the public reflection of the new reality was built up and this reflection, which continues to the present day, necessarily contains totalitarian thinking within its foundations. There was no other type of thinking available when these ideas were shaped -- and it can be argued there still may not be any other available now.

For 20 years, this reflection has been evolving, but the concepts and formulations emerging from it are still nourished by totalitarian roots. It stands to reason the fruits of this process can’t be far different from their roots.

It is a post-totalitarian mindset that tries to face up to its history, but it is based on that history itself, is preconditioned by it, and has had its goals and priorities at least partially shaped by it. It is post-totalitarian thinking determined by post-totalitarian language that was born in a thoroughly totalitarian public space from a language thoroughly reflecting the totality of that experience.

Swept Away By History

Although we consider our ability to criticize the communist regime to be one of the main proofs of our new freedom, we ironically reveal our continuing connection with that regime in the way that we speak about it.

When we speak of the former regime, is it not like a man who mentions a woman as his “former wife”? Isn’t there the implication that there are regular changes in this status and that we consider such changes proper and normal? While the “former” wife probably notices nothing, the man’s prospective, potential, or current wife almost certainly would.

The current government here doesn’t seem too upset by our attitude, but the public’s low level of identification with the government is noteworthy. After all, we chose this regime freely. We have chosen it as a man supposedly chooses a wife -- not until the next one appears, but forever.

The very phrase “former regime” is a general excuse from any obligations derived from bonds to any regime, since we also “freely chose” communism and the Soviet Union “in perpetuity.” Our oaths of loyalty probably mean nothing; in the continuous exchange of ideologies -- an exchange coming from without -- our loyalties are weak.

And in this we tend to blame the higher sweeping power of history (which was also the main scapegoat of the communists). But we should ask whether we are not manipulated by this higher power because we are too insubstantial. Our relationship to the regime must also contain a belief in some sort of essence of ourselves to which this regime (and probably our culture and our collective identity) is fixed.

We tend to believe this essence remains fixed despite external influences. If, then, we refuse to participate in a regime or deny that it is relevant to us, a substantial part of ourselves, of our actions and decisions, remains unexpressed. And this lack of integrity may jeopardize us in the future.

Likewise, we might blame our weak loyalties not on the superior force of history, but on the suppression of the individual by social circumstances: “We wanted to do things differently, but we couldn’t!” Again, however, the integrity of the individual is shattered as the person who thinks thus is implicitly contrasting himself with a sort of ideal image of himself set off by some essential “if.” He considers this “if” an unachieved standard to which he is entitled, and so a duality arises between reality and the ideal construction, while the individual seeks (by pointing to adverse objective conditions) to deprecate the reality to the benefit of the construct.

But this duality is not limited to just the individual’s reality and his idealized construct. He cannot help but make the (altogether useless) comparison of his past with the present of people who were not even alive during the totalitarian regime: “I couldn’t, but they can.” He looks to today’s younger generation and says: “We were not allowed to back then. But today, you can!” In doing so, the affected person sets stricter moral criteria for today’s youth.

He transfers the thwarted ambitions of his own possible self to them, most likely without the slightest inkling he is doing so. It is not a process of fulfilling an ideal self-realization, but rather one of sublimating outdated hopes, hopes that had a certain sense and charm immediately after the revolution but which today feed the imbalance between the optimism of the early 1990s and the disillusionment of subsequent years.

Everyone knows the future will be different, but not everyone seems to realize that the future will not necessarily be good by itself (not even by virtue of any higher power). Responsible actors must supervise the process of change and resolve contradictions that arise. It is wrong to assume that all change is good, since this is certainly untrue.

Ghosts Of The Past

The flip side of this unwarranted belief in an inevitable happy tomorrow is the stultifying fear of an inevitable unhappy ending. Although today’s geopolitical situation in Europe would seem to show the absurdity of such a fear, it nonetheless arises from our common past, in which we left many unresolved problems. We are aware that the skeletons in our closets and other ghosts of the past can emerge at any time and demand the attention that we try to deny them. Our postrevolutionary history is full of such visitors, so it is really no surprise to realize that we have spent more time grappling with them than we have with anticipating and resolving real, pressing issues of our future.

In addition to fear (which itself can be part of a larger feeling of respect), we feel a common aversion to the past. The unhealed wounds of the communist dictatorship are our common heritage and viewing them as such produces three possible interpretations. First, there is the extremist option that comes to view the communist dictatorship positively.

Second, we can look at this heritage as a sort of inherited illness which, ultimately, a strong personality can reconcile with and internalize integrally. This conception of our heritage would seem to offer a way out, but it is hard to compare contemporary Czech society with “a strong personality” or even with one capable of grown-up reactions.

And third, the negative content of this particular heritage likely implies that its meaning and tradition will drift toward pejoratives and rejection. We refuse to accept what is clearly the legacy of our own origin.

The meaning of the communist legacy is further complicated by the confused roles of progenitor and heir. One can’t inherit something, especially unhealed wounds, directly from an ideology. Who was the carrier of this inheritance? From whom did it come? From ourselves, of course. We have inherited self-inflicted wounds and now we refuse to accept them. So what is to be done with them?

And how are young people, who did not experience communism directly, to react to this legacy? Is it correct to accept these wounds as our heritage and to pass them on to the next generation, together with an aversion to our own roots? We cannot get rid of the heritage of communism, but we can understand it as an inherited illness and accept it as an integral part of ourselves. Only then can we truly learn to live with it.

Transformation Of Language

With our heritage and tradition also comes the language the younger generation will inherit from us, including the language that reflects the experience of communism. Will these wounds also remain unhealed? Will totalitarian forms of expression find their way to our grandchildren and great grandchildren?

Of course, it will be transformed as it passes farther from those who experienced the communist trauma into the realm of non-witnesses. The fact is that there is a great concentration of this form of language among non-witnesses, much more than among the witnesses themselves, who seem to have no urge to communicate about such things among themselves.

They do take a strong interest in the edification of the younger generation -- not in the framework of the family or the universities, but in firmly established and limited public arenas. Documentary programs about communism are aired and lessons are read in the schools. As a result, the experience is simplified and generalized for mass consumption.

This, in turn, means that for the non-witness it takes on a weird fatalistic quality. The experience is stripped of interactions between people or groups of people representing varying periods, trends, and principles. There is no space for free human action and everyone is reduced to the role of a puppet or a cog in the machinery of history. Those who witnessed the communist period probably do not intend for this, but for non-witnesses, such an explanation often seems like an undignified rationalization.

This is because such an explication does not enable non-witnesses to imagine anything specific from the communist period. They are left with a few endlessly repeated black-and-white film clips from documentaries. For the witnesses, the period signifies particular experiences and personal events, but this is poorly conveyed to the non-witnesses.

Is the phenomenon of totalitarian-tainted language becoming weaker with the new generation? Do they find no need for such language, nothing for it to denote? If you look closely at the expressions and slogans that young Czech citizens are using today, you’ll get quite the opposite impression.

Such drained, empty phrases are the foundation for a simple semiotic system. The old regime and the communist experience are reduced in the mind of the non-witness to portraits of Stalin, Lenin, or Gottwald; to the hammer and sickle; to red Pioneer scarves. To witnesses, such signs lead back to their own stories and unique experiences -- to experiences that demand reflection and reaction. To the non-witness, the communist period has become a collection of empty signifiers that seem to provide clear ethical judgments. It is easy to manipulate such signifiers -- but it is also easy to be manipulated by them.

The legacy of the totalitarian mindset is not fading away. On the contrary, it is perhaps growing among those who might have been protected from it.

Does this mean we should stop talking about the past? No. We must discuss it even more, but not in post-totalitarian terms, not using terms whose rotten roots stretch back to totalitarian thought patterns.

We must talk in stories, in the accounts of particular witnesses. We need broad and complicated stories that offer catharsis instead of compunction. Such stories reveal human dignity even in extreme situations and destroy the myth of fatalism.

Let’s tell such stories and listen to them. Over the last 20 years, we could have heard quite a few. But it’s never too late to begin.

Ondrej Cerny is a student at the Jan Kepler Gymnasium in Prague. This essay was a runner-up in a contest sponsored by the Vaclav Havel Library to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of RFE/RL.