CRITICS: Version 2 D&S Editorial

Teun A. van Dijk teun at
Sun Apr 14 14:21:48 UTC 1996

Discourse & Society 7,3

(Version 2)


April 1996. Police officers in California bludgeon two 'illegal'
immigrants from Mexico. A camera from a watchful news helicopter
records the gruesome scene, which is immediately broadcast all over
the world, as had happened some years earlier with the terrible
police beating of Rodney King, an African-American arrested for

The public outcry against this police brutality implies that,
fortunately, many people do not condone such behavior. On the other
hand, at least some police officers may feel legitimated in a
structural context in which the majority of Californian voters barely
one year before had adopted Proposition 187, denying social services,
such as schooling and medical treatment to 'illegal aliens' (see my
editorial in *Discourse & Society*, 6.2). We cannot simply
disassociate ourselves from the 'bad guys' or the 'real racists' in a
society which is becoming increasingly inhospitable to the Others:
Disapproval only becomes effective if it is transformed into *active*
opposition against widespread policies and practices. President
Clinton declared himself 'disturbed' about the new events. But
sensing the prevailing anti-immigrant mood in the country had himself
just supported legislation that would further restrict the 'flow' of
illegal immigration into the USA.

Unfortunately, these events are not isolated. At the same time, Dutch
parliament is debating a Bill that essentially imposes the same
restrictions on services to 'illegals' as did Proposition 187 in
California. Fortunately, not everybody complied: Dutch schools
anticipated the dire consequences for immigrant kids by declaring
themselves squarely against acting as an extension of the immigration
authorities. However, no further public uproar could be heard in this
country that complacently prides itself on its tolerance and
hospitality. Neighboring Belgium similarly is considering strict
legislation against further immigration. The Tory government in Great
Britain follows the track set out by former Prime Minister Thatcher
and also tries to garner some of its lost votes by desperately
playing the 'race card' in its new Asylum and Immigration Bill,
thereby slamming the door even tighter against newcomers than in its
earlier draconian Immigration Appeals Act of 1993. Again, these are
no isolated, national measures. Earlier legislation in France and
Germany already had adopted similar legislation, thereby contributing
to the inexorable construction of Fortress Europe, barricading
Europeans against the 'hordes' from the South after the demolition of
the Berlin Wall and the defeat of communism.

Foreigners, immigrants, refugees, minorities and in general the Rest
that the rich, modern and tolerant West does not want. It has been an
increasingly familiar picture in the news as well as a daily menace
in the lives of millions who had to leave their countries in search
of safety or a decent livelihood. Criminalized from the outset as
'illegal' because they don't have the documents that grant them a
modest place to stay and a lowly job to survive in the countries
which in colonial times became rich from pillaging the lands where
most of the 'illegals' came from in the first place.

One might wonder what these threatening signs of the times, this
mounting racism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism in Europa and North
America, have to do with our business of studying discourse in
society. Perhaps little when we limit ourselves to studying whacking
police officers, aggressive right-wing thugs who beat up refugees or
the legitimation they have of politicians out to secure the votes of
increasingly insecure white citizens. But as soon as we start to
examine in some more detail the deeper processes involved, we will
find that the minds that monitor both police officers as well as
racist hoodlums have been managed by many types of public discourse.
And discourse is *our* business.

Indeed, both in Europe and the United States, we find that 'decent'
mainstream politicians, supported by similarly unsuspected media (and
not so respectable tabloids) and other elites who have preferential
access to public discourse, have systematically prepared the public
attitudes against the 'invasion' from the South. We should be clear
about this logic of causality. Some initial research suggests that it
is *not* the political or media pundits who meekly and
'democratically' follow 'popular resentment', but the other way
around. It is the elites whose discourses have prepared the consensus
against growing immigration. It is the elites who thus transformed
the legally prescribed hospitality for refugees into the grisly
practices to which those who appear at our borders are being

If the study of discourse and society at the end of this violent
century, a century which African-American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois
called the century of 'race' from its beginning, should have one
critical focus, it is this major infamy perpetrated by 'our' elites.
No longer will we be able to excuse ourselves with the transparent
argument that legitimated inaction against the Nazis half a century
ago: "Wir haben es nicht gewusst". We *do* know, and it happens right
under our eyes, by our own politicians, by our own media, by our own
business corporations, and by our own institutions. Maybe subtly and
not as obvious as police officers who think themselves unobserved.
Text and talk is no longer the mere surface of slavery, exploitation
or domination, nor merely the easy legitimation of creepy and
criminal nationalism and right-wing extremism. Elite discourse has
become the fundamental means of ideological reproduction and hence
the very core of the system of western exclusion which at the same t
ime it refuses to call what it is: racism. The few alternative (elite
and other) voices of protest are effectively marginalized in this
*meanstream* of consensus and complacency.

That is, as discourse analysts, linguists and as all those in the
social sciences who study discourse in society, we find ourselves in
the middle of the problem. Keeping our eyes, ears and mouths shut (or
our computers) idle makes us directly responsible for, if not guilty
of, the perpetuation of ethnic inequality and injustice. If we
prevent ourselves and our students from critically examining the many
discursive practices involved, we tacitly side with those whose
policies and public discourse indirectly cause or condone the
nightsticks of the police, the assaults of white punks or the
harassment by officials against the Others. Here is a vast field of
critical research that needs to be explored, practices to be exposed,
counter-discourses to be constructed. Not only for their theoretical
and analytical challenge, but also for their humane, social function
and impact. If discourse is prominently involved in producing this
new Apartheid, we should be the experts to analyze and denounce it.
If discourse analysts and other scholars do not want to be part of
such a solution, history will decide that they were part of the main
problem of the 20th century.

Teun A. van Dijk
April 1996

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