20. 11. 2007
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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
20. 11. 2007

Racism, Romanies and politicians in the Czech Republic

Some of the points raised by the article "Nedělní zamyšlení", prompted me to reflect on how I believe the rights and responsibilities linked to the principle of free speech should be regulated in a liberal democracy.

How do we allow freedom of expression, even of offensive opinions, and still offer vulnerable groups protection from incitement to hatred? Drawing a line between the two is no easy matter. Often it comes down to the question, if I changed the statement so that it referred to me rather than the particular group I have in mind, would I be offended? And if the answer to that question is yes, would making this statement serve some useful purpose or am I exercising my right to free speech simply for the hell of it? Political correctness, an anathema to many conservative commentators in the UK and in the Czech Republic, may be taken too far sometimes but it can serve a legitimate purpose. Democracy may, in its baldest sense, be the rule of the majority but a mature democracy should be confident enough in itself to offer additional protection to exposed minority groups.

As it happens, I agree that it is better to allow offensive views to be aired than censored and forced underground, but rather than refusing to react to an opinion which offends me and `outgrow my enemy' I believe it to be my duty to respond, with logic and reason, every time such statements are made. Citizens of a democracy should be free to speak but they should also expect to be criticised if they offend. I absolutely reject the view of those who prefer to take the moral high ground; saying that whatever view was expressed is so far beneath them that it does not merit a response. No: racist, homophobic, misogynistic or other offensive statements, however outlandish, must always be challenged in public because while sophisticated readers may be sceptical about what they hear and read, some will always wonder whether there might not be some truth in the statement -- is there ever smoke without fire? The persisting popularity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in many parts of the world exemplifies this problem well.

Equally, we must be careful about how we approach extremist groups who we may think hold `primitive' opinions. Would it really be a good idea to allow skinheads to hold their `silly little' marches, read their `silly' books and sing their `silly' songs, safe in the knowledge that they are ignorant louts and their activities have no impact on our `more cultured' lives? I think not. Tolerating their activities in such a condescending manner is a very dangerous tactic. We cannot know exactly what the consequences of their activities might be, but an educated guess would be that they would bring harm not good. These individuals should be challenged to face up to the dark history of the Holocaust and its impact on families just like their own.

I would not link politicians like Liana Janáčková and Jiří Čunek to extremist neo-Nazi groups but nevertheless their policies and statements to the press regarding Czech Roma offend and should, therefore, be challenged in the press and in parliament. Not with emotional appeals to their better nature -- we are dealing with politicians here -- but with reasoned arguments. They are not ambassadors for the right to free speech, whether or not they really have the concerns of the majority at heart is also open to debate, but they have learned through experience that anti-Romani statements and policies win votes.

It is not necessarily racist to say the majority of Roma are anti-social, but it is racist to assume that the person standing in front of you is a threat simply because they appear to be Roma. It may well be the case that some Roma make bad neighbours. Many are indeed unemployed and survive only thanks to social welfare support. People who do not have to get up for work can party all night if they so wish, but this is not the whole story. Why are so many Roma unemployed? Perhaps some choose not to work because they can earn more by working under the table while continuing to receive benefits (a strategy employed not only by Roma). However, many more are unemployed because they cannot work. Their poor living conditions cause significant health problems from an early age. The legacy of the special school system and the communist policy of not linking employment and wages to educational achievements have left many without the necessary qualifications to find work. Even when a Romani jobseeker is qualified to apply, the widespread discrimination in the labour market means that a non-Romani candidate will often be chosen ahead of them.

Roma are well aware that most Czechs do not want them as neighbours. They know they are easy targets for politicians who want to score cheap political points by appealing to the masses. They know that non-Romani parents don't want to send their children to the same schools. Many feel that even if they made the effort to behave the way the majority society demands, they would not be trusted or taken seriously. Faced with this situation, is it any wonder that some decide to reject the majority society and its norms in return? So yes, politicians can call for Roma to `adapt' and `fit in' to Czech society but where are the calls for the rest of society to adapt and make room for Roma?

Creating the right conditions for effective inclusion of Roma into society is a complex process which will take time. There are no quick-fix solutions and this is why most politicians prefer to avoid the issue altogether. Even if a politician went out of his or her way to promote an effective integration strategy, they are unlikely to reap the political rewards when the positive results eventually appear. Instead it is easier to make flippant comments in the press about buying everyone a plane ticket to London or recommending citizens get a deeper suntan to ensure that they get their social welfare benefits, while pursuing policies which exacerbate the already serious ghettoisation problems in Czech towns and cities.

Pressure from the EU and international organisations to tackle the social exclusion of Romani communities in the Czech Republic has resulted in the development of a myriad of programmes and policies. The funding to implement these programmes is also available from the European Commission and from the relevant Czech ministries. Research, including my own, has revealed that problems commonly emerge at the implementation stage because of a lack of will among politicians at the municipal level. Many fear that by appearing to be soft on Roma, by funding additional social workers, teaching assistants or preparatory classes, they will lose favour among voters. Rather than draw on the funds, which cannot be used for any other purpose, they prefer not to get involved. Implementing these programmes would not disadvantage non-Roma in any way. Indeed if the programmes were successful and led to the better integration of Roma then the whole of society would benefit. But again, this would be the far-sighted view. It is far easier to throw one's hands up in despair, blame the Roma for their problems, move them as far away from everyone else as possible and let the next mayor deal with the consequences.

Obsah vydání       20. 11. 2007
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