Prejudice, the media and hate

UNYP faculty and students have been working on an innovative research project

Albert Einstein once said that it was easier to crack an atom than to crack prejudice. No wonder, then, that prejudice has been the subject of so much academic study, especially since its impact is far from abstract. The worst manifestations of prejudice come in the form of mass violence. How, by what processes, does prejudice turn into mass hatred? This is the subject of an inter-disciplinary research project that started at UNYP in the summer of 2010, and which has drawn on the input of faculty members and students alike. The faculty members involved are Todd Nesbitt, Peter Zvagulis, Tess Slavíčková, Désirée Gonzalo, Jim Critz and Tanweer Ali  - and eight Communication and Mass Media students have taken part.

The methodology used in this project is AntiMetrics, the creation of Peter Zvagulis, who has developed a system for analyzing and detecting conflicts in their early stages. AntiMetrics uses ideas from social psychology, history and linguistics. The crucial insight is that we need to understand prejudice as a collective social phenomenon, not just as an aggregation of individual emotions, and Peter has studied the mechanisms through which politicians and the media manipulate stereotypes and create scapegoats. The outcome is a self-feeding process which tears apart the bonds which hold society together, with potentially lethal consequences. In the course of his research Peter has studied in particular detail the build-up to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Bosnian war and the genocide in Rwanda. The key element in all of these cases was the use of hate-speech in the media - this is the essential catalyst which turns private prejudice into collective hatred.

Monitoring the media involves a deep understanding of the dynamics of a society and cannot be a purely mechanical process, since manipulation can take subtle forms, especially when it is underpinned by a defining ideology.

Indeed the Czech Republic was not the obvious choice of location to conduct a pilot study of the AntiMetrics methodology. We looked at implementing the methodology in places where open conflict was an everyday threat but after talking to several organizations in the field we realized that previously generous funding resources had all but dried up. Since the AntiMetrics methodology is also applicable in places where civil strife is not a threat, we decided to base our pilot project in Prague, making good use of UNYP’s strength in linguistics.

The project has three parts. The main part has been analysis of media reports, using the methodology of Critical Discourse Analysis, and this has drawn mainly on the work of students, under the direction of Tess Slavičková. The second part has been an opinion survey, examining the impact of any media
manifestations of prejudice on public opinion. The survey was run by the innovative market research firm Perfect Crowd, generously on a non-profit
basis, and the results showed that the Czech public are largely tolerant towards minorities – the conspicuous exception being the Roma community. In this respect the Czech Republic is no exception, with similar attitudes to the Roma found across Europe. The third part of the research involved in-depth
interviews, conducted by students, with people in government or with expertise in the issues which we were investigating.

Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis have summarized the projects findings to date in an article which will appear in the prestigious UK-based Journal of Language and Politics later this year.  As we plan the next stage of the project, the material keeps piling up, and the AntiMetrics methodology seems especially timely. The title of a 1990s film comes to mind: „The Devil Never Sleeps.“

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