Author: Ewa Bobrowska
Asst. Prof. Ewa Bobrowska, a sociologist at the Department of Social Pedagogy and Andragogy, studies social discourse, focusing on links between its features and the participation of its users in public life.
Radio Maryja was founded as a Catholic radio station in Toruń in 1991 by priests from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redemptor, known as Redemptorists. Its director is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. Over its more than 20 years in existence, it has come to symbolize a certain distinctive social group and serve as the very center of its activity. It has around 1.5 million listeners, with many of them seeing it as something more than just a radio station. Radio Maryja’s supporters report that they have changed their lives under its influence, fully identify with the station, and remain engaged in public life by organizing pilgrimages as well as political demonstrations. Many institutions have emerged that affiliate themselves with the station: associations of Radio Maryja’s friends, a higher education establishment, and even other media outlets, including the newspaper Nasz Dziennik.
Nevertheless, Radio Maryja’s message to the general public is not widely accepted. Merely 20% of Poles, most of whom are Catholics, say they trust the station, compared with over 70% who say so about other stations. Even so, the controversy surrounding Radio Maryja is caused not by its religious nature but by the way it engages in political and social issues.
Serious accusations leveled against Radio Maryja include its propagation of hate speech or verbal aggression against those stereotypically regarded as outgroupers. Defenders or Radio Maryja disagree with that opinion, but the fact remains that many statements of this kind can be heard on the radio and found in the media associated with the station. Evidence supporting such arguments was collected by Magdalena Tulli and Sergiusz Kowalski in a book with a telltale title: Zamiast procesu: Raport o mowie nienawiści [“In Lieu of a Trial: A Report on Hate Speech”]. It demonstrates that the discourse that has emerged around Radio Maryja is especially susceptible to negative stereotypes. Paradoxically, hate speech appears on a radio station whose message is deeply rooted in Christian values. Even more curious are the declarations of its listeners, who claim that they have learned what “love” truly means thanks to Radio Maryja. But then, why are they not opposed to statements that are commonly viewed as filled with aggression? Many commentators blame this on the personal situation of such listeners, arguing that they have achieved no success in their lives, so they are frustrated and therefore prone to aggression. Indeed, Radio Maryja’s listeners are predominantly less affluent and less educated, but they are not destitute or socially excluded. Likewise, there is not much talk of the lowest social class on Radio Maryja. Despite this striking contradiction, Radio Maryja’s public message has certain features that shed light on such mechanisms.
An analysis of articles from the affiliated newspaper Nasz Dziennik shows that the concept of an enemy plays an important role in the type of discourse that has emerged around Radio Maryja. More specifically, this enemy is often conceptualized not as a specific individual but as a group whose members are difficult to identify, because they act covertly. They allegedly conspire to secretly control public life with a view to destroying the Polish nation. This enemy acts outside any public control and possesses a special and virtually demonic ability to influence others. One might think that those who believe in the existence of such a group show great naivety, and such comments are indeed frequently made. But the problem runs significantly deeper. When taken out of context and described as a figure of speech, as here, the “enemy” concept indeed appears nonsensical. But it may be interpreted completely differently when it is looked at within the context of a vision of the world that confirms its existence in various ways. And this is exactly the case with Radio Maryja’s discourse. Let us try to examine, step by step, the mechanism responsible for this vision.
Traps and simplifications
One striking thing about Radio Maryja’s discourse is a certain narrative pattern followed by its vision of the world. It centers around a person or a group of people who have been wronged, for whatever reason, by those who wield power (economic or political) and use it ruthlessly to advance their own goals. Morally, the weak are therefore always morally in the right, yet they lose out when confronted with egoism on the part of the strong, who enjoy a higher social status. What emerges is a simple mechanism for describing certain social situations, which is then applied most preferably to occurrences that fit into this pattern. Occurrences that comply with the pattern attract more attention, which therefore shapes the way reality is perceived. Such a vision of the world is therefore based not on lies, but on facts that fit into an assumed interpretative framework.
But any overall vision of public life inevitably generalizes over individual incidents. What emerges from such generalizations here is a picture of Poles apparently divided into two groups: the social elite and everyone else. The former are guided by rather dishonest motives and act to the detriment of the latter. At the same time, what shapes social mechanisms are not objective conditions but actions performed in good or bad faith, which creates a vision of the world that is dichotomic and personified. And largely unrealistic, because it fails to acknowledge the complexity of public life and the contradictory interests present among individuals with similar social status. Nonetheless, it is reaffirmed every day by facts continuously presented in the media, so it may indeed seem accurate.
As we have already stated, this binary vision of the world places the elite in the role of public enemy number one. But the elite are not believed to wield such great power as to act as the only factor behind negative phenomena. What needs to be explained is both the submissiveness on the part of members of the general public, who let themselves be used by the elite, and the absence of general public support for Radio Maryja as a defender of the nation. These are real problems, ones that are difficult to shrug off in silence. Consequently, statements related to this subject contain yet another enemy, this time a hidden one. But since the main role of this concept is to maintain an unrealistic vision of the world, it must be given a set of new attributes. An enemy conceptualized in this way is therefore skilled at manipulating the public and these skills are so great that no one aside from Radio Maryja can understand society’s pitiful condition. Being impossible to identify and well versed in social engineering techniques, this enemy can remain so successful. Consequently, it is clear that there is a “mafia that fights against good,” but it is difficult to say where exactly it is located and who actually forms it.
Everyone a suspect
Let us now look at the situation from the perspective of users of Radio Maryja’s discourse, who are faced with a dilemma: to believe in this mythical enemy, or to reject a vision of the world that they have already embraced? Importantly, choosing the former option forces them to fundamentally change their attitude to other members of society. As already stated, what lies at the heart of Radio Maryja’s discourse is solidarity with the wronged.
Since such people prove to be effectively controlled by skilled manipulators, they essentially become their allies. Consequently, the enemy melts into society at large, infiltrates it, and can no longer be distinguished from those who deserve trust. By sowing the seeds of mistrust, the elusive concept of an enemy reshapes the perception of society, which turns from an object of solidarity into a source of danger. Consequently, the discourse and its users open up to various stereotypical prejudices and by the same token also hate speech.
All these remarks could be summed up by citing an observation once made by philosopher Karl Popper, that conspiracy theories are rooted in a misjudgment of the complexity of social mechanisms. Simplified visions of public life are therefore conducive to the development of such theories. Radio Maryja’s discourse fully confirms this argument.
© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013