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Nationalism and Serbian Intellectuals’ Stereotypes about "Us" and "Them"

Monday 15 October 2007, by Olivera Milosavljevic

The Producers and the Consumers

This topic could also be called “From Joke to Foe.” I will try to cover this seemingly long path very quickly and easily explain what nationalism is. Why “From Joke to Foe?” Because in all social circumstances and political situations, there are stereotypes about every group division, be it sexual, professional, ethnic, or something else. Ethnic stereotypes are present even in the most normal and most peaceful political circumstances. They seem to be very benign then, part of jokes. They seem funny. You encounter the Englishman, the Frenchman, the American, the Serb, the Yugoslav… In those jokes, “we,” the group we belong to, is always the wittiest, the nimblest, the cleverest, the most intelligent and the most beautiful, while “the others” are usually stupid and primitive. Under normal political circumstances, this sounds funny. The problem is that it is a very short path between such a “funny” perception of “ourselves” and “others,” to the perspective of “us” and “them” as deadly foes. The difference between peacetime joke stereotypes and wartime jokes is that the former are funny and the latter are no longer funny - they are a line between life and death. Their content, though, is identical.

Prejudice is defined in different ways. I prefer Voltaire’s definition of prejudice as “thinking without reasoning.” To create a stereotype–I am thinking exclusively of national stereotypes–it is necessary that the individual easily accept the national stereotype as their “opinion” and be prone to stereotypes. The problem is that stereotypes are widespread. Many people are not aware of the fact that they speak prejudice, “thinking without reasoning.” They believe they are stating their views, unaware that they are merely parroting what they have heard a million times in different situations. In that sense, the very stereotypes that result from prejudicial thinking are always automatic and dogmatic devices. They are automatic because they are so present in public discourse and have been repeated so many times that they are uttered without thinking. They are dogmatic because their truthfulness is never questioned. For example, are Montenegrins really “lazy?” Are Bosnians “stupid?” Indeed, are Croats “genocidal?” Are Serbs “heroic?” The stereotypes about “us” are always positive, just as those about others are negative. They are devices because they are used in everyday speech when there are no real arguments, whereas in wartime, they become the sole argument for killing.

Let us examine now how they are generated, who circulates them, in what way, and for what purpose. First of all, we have to separate the subject and the object in the stereotypical way of thinking.

The object of a stereotype is always the nation or ethnic group, whether we are talking about auto-stereotypes about “us” or hetero-stereotypes about “others.” Nations are never the subject, they never generate stereotypes. The creators of stereotypes are always concrete groups within one nation who define, distribute, and consciously spread the stereotypes, or, as the political situation changes, intentionally stop them. That means that the generators of stereotypes are always intellectuals, or, in a broader sense, the elite. Nations are merely their consumers, who accept them to a smaller or greater extent. The nations never generate stereotypes, nor are nations ever proponents of anything that could be defined as thinking. Nations are not organisms. They are not uniform. They do not represent an entity that could be defined as thinking. Nations are only objects for creators of stereotypes. Stereotypes—either positive or negative—are generated about them.

The function of National Stereotypes

Nations are not objective phenomena. They are changeable constructs linked to certain historical periods. They are very recent phenomena, related to the most recent historical periods. Nations appear and disappear. However, when they are observed from the nationalist perspective, they are perceived, stereotypically, as “national bodies” with a “national spirit.” At this point we encounter nationalism as an ideology. There can be no nationalism without national stereotypes about “us” and “them.” Take any nationalism and cleanse it of national stereotypes - there will be nothing left. All that remains is an empty shell because nationalism works exclusively through national stereotypes that make up its substance. Nationalism constructs national stereotypes about “others” in order to create negative criterion in contrast to which it will create one’s own positive identity. That is the essential function of national stereotypes. Unless you have the “other” as a norm to which you ascribe negative qualities, you cannot have a basis for building your own “positive” identity. How can “we” be the bravest unless there are “others’ who are cowards? How can “we” have “the most glorious history”, unless there are “others” who “have no history?” Negative national stereotypes about “others” serve exclusively as a basis for creating positive stereotypes about “us.” The second function of negative national stereotypes about “others” is creating, in certain social circumstances, arguments for the necessity of war and conflict with “others.” If you analyze the past 15 years and the way in which the intellectuals molded public opinion here and the key motives they put forward for the inevitability of war, you will see that they are simply generalizations of national stereotypes. They are always the same in all wars. Nationalism is never original. It is always a repetition of the same things, but the problem is that public opinion does not recognize that what they are listening to has already been said a thousand times, in different places, but in similar political situations.

The Generation of War by Means of National Stereotypes

I am going to talk about the wars of the 1990s, a time when the principal stereotype was “They hate Serbs and everything Serbian.” This stereotype is at least two hundred years old. You can find it two hundred years ago in reference to the Turks. You will find it in the 19th century in reference to the Austrians. You will find it in the beginning of the 20th century in reference to the Albanians. You will find it in The Second Balkan War, when it was transferred onto the Bulgarians. You will find it in The Second World War. You will find it in the wars of the 1990s. You will also find it in the war of 1999, when it referred to the Americans. “They hate Serbs and everything Serbian,” was also, “They hate Germans and everything German.” That is a classical stereotype that has always been present; only its object was changed. In other words, stereotypes are constant values and the objects of stereotypes are changeable.

The second stereotype is the answer to the question, ‘Why do they hate us?” because we have a glorious history. We have a glorious past. We have great rights (historical and ethnic). They have none of these. They are an artificial nation. They are a synthetic nation. They are not an authentic nation. “They are a nation without history,” is the most absurd stereotype repeated here on daily basis. It was also repeated by reputable intellectuals. “Our” rights (based on “our” authenticity and “our” historical rights, which “they” do not have) are derived from these stereotypes. That type of argument served as a foundation for the creation of a belligerent atmosphere here in the 1980s.
The third element refers to the intellectuals who are the creators of the stereotypes that are the essence of nationalism. In nationalism, the individual does not exist; the nation is everyone. The denial of individualism in nationalism originates from the demands of nationalism and the pressure on the individual for complete submission to the national construct. Individuals are not allowed to raise any question that would not fall under the chimera called “the national interest,” which is changeable, depending on day-to-day political circumstances. This entire story is connected to political context. Daily politics dictate the definition of nationalism, what its intellectuals will put forward as questions of “national interest,” which stereotypes will be emphasized and which will temporarily be put away, which will be developed and suggested to the public and, unfortunately, widely accepted and followed. At times, political circumstances lead to the stifling of stereotypes. Do not ever have the illusion that the intellectuals who serve stereotypes to the public really believe in them. Do not think that the author believes what he is writing about the “genesis of genocidal tendencies” among Croats. He is merely providing, from his elite position, a certain opinion to the broad population, an opinion that they should adopt in order to follow a certain policy. Intellectuals do not believe the stereotypes they circulate, but they are aware of the fact that the masses will believe them. The best example of this relates to the ongoing negotiations with the Kosovar Albanians. Our political elite have decided to withdraw or water down some political stereotypes. Until two months ago, regardless of what actually happened in Kosovo, we could hear that the actors were “Shiptar [an ethnic slur for Albanians] terrorists,” or, at least, “Albanian terrorists.” Now, when in recent case in which a boy was wounded, all television stations said that the perpetrators had been “Albanian youths.” This is an example of the withdrawal of stereotypes. This does not mean that tomorrow they will not be poured out in their most malignant and ugliest form.

National stereotypes are always the most simplified answers to the most complex questions. The “scapegoat” concept of those who are always to blame for all the shortcomings and failures of a society is invariably created in order to avoid confronting the real answers to questions about why is a society lagging behind or facing problems. It is then that a “scapegoat” is defined and all aggression is directed towards it (such as Jews in World War II). Such simplified answers can never raise society’s awareness. They cannot enable it to break out of the vicious circle of stereotypical thinking about “us” and the “others.” They constantly keep society under elite control so that it can be manipulated more easily and more successfully.

Leafing through the daily press of the 1980s, we can learn how a war was literally being produced. For example, you can see it in issues of Politika from 1987 to 1992. In 1987, you will not find a single negative depiction of Croats. All the negative tones were directed at Albanians because the political context was such that is was necessary to foment hatred of them. In 1988, beside the Albanians, who occupied first place in Politika, Slovenes appeared, referred to as “Austrian stable boys.” Negative stereotypes are created about them. (I have to point out that there had never been any negative stereotypes about the Slovenians in the 20th century. The first ones were created by rock musicians Bora Djordjevic and Djordje Balasevic). There were no stereotypes about Croats until 1989. Hatred of Albanians was the primary goal, followed by an increasingly negative presentation of Slovenes. When Kosovo’s autonomy was abolished in March 1989, Albanians disappear from newspaper pages, and so do the so-called “interethnic rapes.” The Slovenes remain. A new “enemy” appears - the Croats. In the 1990s, the Slovenes are no longer in the limelight. The whole newspaper, all of the headlines, is about Croat enemies. The pictures in Politika are made to look like something is really happening. For example, a front page headline reads ‘Croatian Special Units Dumped Serb Children’ or the headline ‘In the Village of Slatina, a Legion of Ustashas made up of Zagreb Students Slaughtered 120 Serbs.” The next day, it said that the name of the village was not Slatina, but Podravska Slatina. The day after, there was no mention of it. In the end, the creation of anti-Muslim stereotypes began. This could not, however, be developed to the full because of the numerous scattered theaters of war. There was also an attempt to conduct an anti-Macedonian campaign during the incidents around Kumanovo, but as soon as the decision was made not to spread the war in that area, those were forgotten.

The mechanism of creating national stereotypes can also be monitored though publishing activities, which again depend on political circumstances to determine when it will be fully developed

Once the identity of a victimized nation –a nation everyone wants to destroy, a nation everyone hates, a nation surrounded by deadly enemies that has to sacrifice its last man in order to survive – is fully developed, nationalism resorts to additional mechanisms. However, when a political context is created that prevents such activities, if nationalism does not find another denominator that will serve as a basis for collective identity, nationalism begins to crumble. When there are no more Albanians and no more Croats to use to build your own “positive” identity on the “negative” identity of others, once they have faded out, you will only have clashes between Belgrade and Nis. There will be no other “negative” denominator for a “positive” integration of society.

How to Fight against Prejudices?

If all the means of a society are used to build up a certain way of thinking, it is extremely hard to oppose that process. In my opinion, small groups like yours cannot reverse this process because they are active only within their own group and their surroundings. However, it is also impossible to do this in public because the dominant ideology in this country is, unfortunately, nationalist. As long as we have a public modeled in this way, until politically correct discourse— what is and is not admissible in a civilized society—has been defined, there will be no way to oppose this. The fundamental democratic issue misinterpreted here is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is allowed only up to the point where it does not abuse the freedom of others. Here, we are persistently being told, even by the democratic forces, that freedom of speech is the freedom to say everything that comes to mind. In civilized society, such things are punished.

From the discussion that followed the lecture:

On intellectuals:

An intellectual is a person who has the capacity of autonomous thinking and public presentation of his views. When you analyze the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will see that intellectuals have always serve politics, especially here. For example, Jovan Cvijic wrote about the “historical” right of Serbs in north Albania. That was commonplace in Serb history. Dejan Medakovic is an intellectual, but he was also a creator of nationalist ideology. Milorad Ekmecic argued that the Serbs have the right to 60% of Bosnia. The word ’elite’ is not a value statement; it is a position held by a certain group in a society, the group who has power.

On the pluralism of identities:

Nationalism doe not allow for the pluralism of identities. Identity is a subjective category; it has nothing to do with nationalism. The Balkan nations were created on an ethnic basis. There were no states in the 19th century, the century of nationalism. Nations were created before the states were, as intellectual constructs based on Herder’s romantic principles and on the conviction that the nation and its spirit were founded in mediaeval times. A nation define in this way was called upon to define her national state; this was the reason for all the clashes that followed in the Balkans.
Dositej Obradovic and Vuk Karadzic directly ridiculed equating religion and nation. The church circles insisted on the identification between religion and nation. That is where the widespread definition of Serb=Orthodox comes from today. In the very beginning of the nation defining process, two mutually exclusive constructs appeared - the linguistic element, which relied on the Vuk’s idea of “all Serbs from everywhere,” according to which the stokavian dialect of the Serbian language was to be the basis of the nation. The other construct was religious - “Where there is slava, there are Serbs;” the Orthodox religion was supposed to be the basis of national identity. The intellectuals who accepted the linguistic standard proclaimed Serbs to be all the people speaking the stokavian dialect (which is also used by Muslims and Catholics), whereas those who accepted the religious standard, proclaimed all Orthodox Christians, including Macedonians, to be Serbs. There is also a third stream of thought, which claims that the Serb nation is defined by the stokavian dialect and the Orthodox religion, which is utter nonsense, because these two concepts are mutually exclusive.

The fact that someone is a Serb or an Albanian is his personal business and should not be anyone’s concern up to the moment when he or she becomes a Serb or Albanian nationalist. The nationalists are trying to convey the idea that every Serb is a Serb nationalist, which is not true. What they are trying to do is to convert the entire nation to their ideology and to implant the nationalist ideology in the very concept of identity.

(An edited version a lecture given at the “Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses” seminar on April 8, 2006 in Belgrade, organized by Women in Black)

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[1Translator’s remark: A slava is a celebration of a family patron saint, typical of The Serbian Orthodox Church. The word is also a homophone for ‘glory.’