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Free spaces for thought and de-acceleration

This is a revised version of the acceptance speech of the leading Austrian discourse analysis scholar, for a ‘lifetime award’ from the Austrian Ministry for Women, Families & Youth. Speech.

lead lead Screenshot: Ruth Wodak accepts the “Lebenswerk-Preis”,8/10/2018.Vimeo.

Honored guests, dear friends!

 Let me begin by saying – despite receiving a life-time award [1], I am certainly not going to stop working now, I will continue with my research and – driven by curiosity as always –  will engage with topics both old and new.

Especially today, in times that are rather inimical to science, in which more and more frequently results, evidence, and insights are denigrated as mere opinions, it is more important than ever to reflect critically, to engage systematically and in interdisciplinary cooperation with the many complex, unsolved problems here and elsewhere.

Of course, I am also surprised to receive this award right now, at all times – since, as you all probably know, my research interests and focus as well as my critical position in the social sciences are antithetical to many of the policies, propositions and aims of those currently in power.

It was in 2003, during the first Black-and-Blue governmen [2], that my Wittgenstein research center[3] at the Austrian Academy of Sciences was closed down despite excellent international evaluations, among other things because of my research on identity politics, racism, right-wing populism and antisemitism. [4] my Wittgenstein research center... was closed down among other things, because of my research on identity politics, racism, right-wing populism and antisemitism.

These topics, so decided some of the Academy’s members, were not welcome at the Academy – but then they were welcome for 12 years at Lancaster University, in England.

It was specifically this research, however, that has proven most relevant over the last 15 years; upon its translation into the German my most recent book on this, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage 2015), was awarded the Austrian Scientific Book of the Year prize in 2017 in the field of cultural studies. The times are changing…!

Ruth Wodak.

A child of return

I am a “child of return”, a child of parents who were persecuted and displaced by the Nazis, and who returned from British exile to Austria out of their conviction that one had to fight for a better world after 1945. I grew up with this dedication to justice and human rights, and I am very grateful to my parents for conveying this clear positioning to me.

I am especially touched and moved by the fact that today’s award ceremonies take place in memory of Käthe Leichter – a social scientist, socialist unionist, suffragette and resistance fighter against fascism and national socialism. Käthe Leichter [5] belonged to the same youth organization as my father, and as a role model, she was a household name for us.

Käthe Leichter socialist writer killed by Nazis in 1942. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.I am also a member of the ‘68 generation; so had the privilege of studying at a time of great change in which Austria was significantly modernized. The universities were finally opening up to women.

In this respect, I am also an early feminist: Johanna Dohnal [6] was our role model here. In 1975 we founded the first women’s group at Vienna University and named it “Women’s Group Uni Vienna”. To the puzzlement of our (male) superiors at the time, all of the women in this group went on to earn their Habilitation (tenure); indeed in 1975, we jointly published – also to the puzzlement of our male colleagues – a book entitled The Eternal Cliché (Böhlau 1975). Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that many stereotypes and preconceptions against women and minorities still persist today and that we are currently witnessing a strong backlash.

SPÖ-Frauenministerinnen Johanna Dohnal, 2007. Wikicommons/Werner Faymann. Some rights reserved.By the way: I had my first experience with patriarchal academe in 1971. Back then, I was beginning work on my PhD in the field of sociolinguistics, a field that did not exist in Austria at the time. Only a single professor in Graz was interested in some sociolinguistic questions. Thus, I travelled to Graz in order to get advice on the field work I was planning to do. The professor kindly explained to me that there were two things I should always remember as a female scholar – first, that one must drink a lot of schnapps during field work; and second, that women giving lectures were only looked at, but men were listened to. This advice was certainly not helpful; but it made me realize that such attitudes had to be changed and that communication was one of many dimensions that had to be challenged.

Friendships from this early time at Vienna University remain very important to me even today. Back then, we successfully fought for equality at the universities, to finally become audible and visible as female academics. But it was already clear to us then that “being a woman” alone was not sufficient. Clearly, one must also endorse specific values, earn qualifications, and take a clear stance – one must have a vision of an egalitarian society in which anachronistic gender politics can no longer exist and resonate. To become visible, to be heard, to be taken seriously – this motto has remained important up to this very day.

To become visible, to be heard, to be taken seriously – this motto has remained important up to this very day. To become visible and audible means that we must communicate, whether orally, in writing or through images: acting through language, taking explicit stances, establishing clarity. This necessarily means that we sometimes attract negative attention; especially women who do so were and are still being characterized as “career-obsessed”, “strict”, “irritating”, or “aggravating”. Patience and persistence are required; we must have long- and mid-term estimates of consequences and late consequences - just as we would expect it from politicians.

Of course, one can also stay silent and forego visibility and a strong stance[7]; silence, too, is communication – as was evidenced by the famous communication theorist and psychotherapist Paul Watzlawick in the 1970s. Silence, however, often remains vague and can be interpreted in whichever way one wants. Did we not learn that “Qui tacet, consentire videtur” (who remains silent, appears to agree)? It is all the more gratifying when those in power take clear positions, at least sometimes.

The breaking of the silence

Indeed, post-war Austria was covered by a veil of silence, victims and perpetrators both remained silent, if for very different reasons. The former most likely because they were busy with surviving from day to day and wanted to protect themselves and their families from traumatic memories; the latter because of guilt and shame for their various roles as perpetrators, accomplices or accessories. But 1986 with the so-called “Waldheim affair”,[8] 1989 and the rise of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party, and 1995 as well as 2001/2 – the years of the Wehrmacht exhibitions[9] – disrupted the public silence abruptly and thereby allowed crucial engagements with and insights into our pasts, changing the established patterns of political communication. The lasting impact of these interventions in Austrian society – which were also discursive interventions –is clearly documented in our interdisciplinary research on all these events[10].

And where do we stand now? Research on political communication during the last two decades indicates significant changes:

First, we are witnessing with increasing frequency a disruption of the Austrian post-war consensus in the form of the breaking of taboos and the normalization of the previously unsayable and exclusionary ideologies. The many so-called “isolated cases”[11], which I do not want to enumerate here, clearly demonstrate this tendency.

The fact that many politicians in power today remain silent, however, surprises and unsettles me, saddens me. Have the results of many years of research and public debates become obsolete? The so-called “war-rhetoric” (Kampfrhetorik) which governs political debates fits the picture. We observe that substance is now frequently neglected in favor of repeated, aggressive ad hominem arguments. We observe that substance is now frequently neglected in favor of repeated, aggressive ad hominem arguments. Second, we are confronted with a mediated hyper-performance of politics. Again, this is happening at the cost of substance. Media presence becomes the all-important priority. Already in the 1960s, the renowned philosopher Hanna Arendt noted that world politics was, “above all, image care”, focused on “victory in the advertising battle over world opinion”.[12] In many respects, this is certainly nowadays even more the case than ever before.

Third, we are witnessing a qualitatively different handling of lies in political communication. This indicates, I would argue – by drawing on Daniel Dor, the Israeli semanticist – not so much an era of “post-truth” (for there have always been lies in politics), but an era of “shamelessness”, in which one no longer even has to apologize for a blatant lie and in which “bad manners” (that is, the deliberate neglect of all rules and norms of behavior and conversational maxims) can be used as an appealing and attractive tool against so-called elites.

The fact that politicians can move on to business as usual even after their lies have been publicly uncovered, that is something we are getting used to, it is becoming normalized. Just recall Donald Trump’s claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration on January 20, 2017. It seems as if parallel worlds and truths now exist beside each other; unequivocal fact checks find little resonance.

What is to be done? We therefore need what I choose to term well-reflected de-acceleration.

We live in an age of dehistoricization and rapid acceleration: WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, E-Mail, Instagram etc. We therefore need what I choose to term well-reflected de-acceleration: we need free spaces for thought, to recognize historical interrelationships, to discuss them; at the same time, we need courage to develop creative visions and to consider knowledge-based options in decision-making.

Scientists rarely offer simple recipes - after all, we detect complexity and complex interrelationships, not simple solutions.

Thus, I hope that what has been a vital motto for me – to visibly and audibly take a stance, and yet to remain curious and open to new suggestions, to respect other opinions, to not avoid conflict and controversy, and to seek compromises – can become a guiding principle for everyone in our society. As a woman (with a life time achievement award no less), one can (perhaps) voice such a wish.

 


[1] Ruth Wodak received the Lebenswerkpreis (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A4the-Leichter-Preis) on 8 October 2018. Here, you can find a video with her speech and the published entire speech in German.

[2] The so-called Black-and-Blue government was formed as a coalition between the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The former is the direct successor of the VdU, a party founded by former Nazis, and is situated and the far-right of the political spectrum, with notable ties to the extreme right. The latter is a Christian-Democratic, conservative party that has recently embraced many of the FPÖ’s positions on migration and asylum policy as well as populist strategies. While the coalition in the early 2000s was the first time a far-right party was in government in any EU member state, receiving close scrutiny and criticism at the European level, the two parties are again in a government coalition at this time.

[3] The Wittgenstein Award is the most prestigious and best-funded science award in Austria. The award money is intended to give the recipients the greatest possible freedom and flexibility in their research. Ruth Wodak received the award in 1996 and used it to fund a research center on discourse, politics and identity for the following years.

[4] See https://derstandard.at/1338559182321/Krise-Ruth-Wodak-verkuendet-OeAW-Austritt

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A4the_Leichter

[6] Born in 1939, Dohnal was a prominent feminist and politician for Austria’s Social-Democratic Party. She was Austria’s first Minister for Women and is recognised as a leading figure in the fight for women’s rights.

[7] A criticism frequently verbalized against former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and current Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The latter frequently remains silent even if the coalition partner, the extreme right party FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party) breaks taboos by posting xenophobic images or uttering racist, antisemitic of revisionist statements.

[8] Kurt Waldheim, who had been UN Secretary-General from 1972 to 1981, ran for Austrian President in 1985/1986. During his campaign, it came to light that Waldheim had kept several facts about his military service during World War II secret and had lied about others that indicated he had been aware of Nazi war crimes. Although these revelations and Waldheim’s denials created an international scandal, Waldheim became president in 1986.

[9] The “Wehrmacht Exhibitions” were a series of two exhibitions focusing on war crimes committed by the German Wehrmacht during World War II. Both exhibitions were produced by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and, showing the military’s war crimes, broke with the myth, maintained by many, that the German army had acted honorably during the war and should be seen as separate from the Nazi regime.

[10] See, for example, Wodak et al. 1990 Wir sind alle unschuldige Täter. Diskurshistorische Studien zum Nachkriegsantisemitismus. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp; Wodak & Pelinka 20002 The Haider Phenomenon in Austria. Transaction Press. Heer et al. 2008 The Discursive Concstruction of History. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[11] The Austrian Freedom Party has committed 47 “Isolated cases” of breaking taboos since joining the Austrian government in December 2017. Of course, the so-called isolated cases form a clear pattern. The Austrian broadsheet Der Standard keeps track of these cases and continuously updates the list.

[12] See Arendt 1972 Wahrheit und Lüge in der Politik Frankfurter Rundschau

About the author

Ruth Wodak has been Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University since 2004 and remains affiliated to the University of Vienna where she became full Professor of Applied Linguistics in 1991. In spring 2016, Ruth was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. Currently, she is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM). Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; language and/in politics; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work.

Recent book publications include The discourse of politics in action:Politics as Usual’ (2009). Migration, Identity and Belonging (with G. Delanty, P. Jones, 2011); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak, 2008); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (with M. Krzyżanowski, 2009); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (with Barbara Johnstone and Paul Kerswill, 2010); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (with John Richardson, 2013), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (with Majid KhosraviNik and Brigitte Mral, 2013).

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