Panel VI: Fear

In Panel VI, chaired by editor and translator Jana Cviková, writers György Konrád, Radka Denemarková and Robert Menasse discussed about freedom and democracy and well as the causes of fear and ways of fighting it.

Jana Cviková. Foto: Peter Župník

Hungarian writer György Konrád placed fear in the context of power, which endeavours to appropriate words by constant repetition of empty cliches, forcing the citizens to repeat them too. In an undemocratic society „anyone who dares to use different words, to write a text that is not just repetition, becomes suspect. Power punishes any deviation from prescribed copy and this is what constitutes censorship.“ Censorship, in its turn, generates fear: „If I break the unwritten rules I have to fear reprisals. Under fully-fledged dictatorship it is a question of life and death, under its less harsh variety it is a question of material survival.“ György Konrád pointed out that twenty years after the fall of communism Hungary has a new partocracy and the country is ruled on a populist ideology.  Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević coined the term „dictatocracy“ for this kind of system. „Wherever democracy lacks deep roots, wherever people have not learned to mock the stupidity of power the stupidity takes over society. However, I hope that people will wake up and start thinking independently.“

György Konrád. Foto: Peter Župník

Building on the issue of censorship Czech writer Radka Denemarková noted that self-censorship is equally dangerous: „People set their own boundaries which they are afraid of crossing, they are afraid of taking a different look at things.“ In the Czech Republic, where the terms Left and Right have lost their meaning and political parties have turned into enterpreneurs‘ personal what makes Radka Denemarková afraid is the fact that „we have become a prosperous society but the prosperity has had an aggressively stultifying effect, driving out solidarity. People who are less lucky are being pushed to the margins as if they suffered from a contagious disease.“ Once we get rid of auxilliary labels (national, religious or those referring to political affiliation) human behaviour is the same. „We must not allow fear to break us and we must not be afraid to speak of issues such as pain, illness or death, which are shared by all the people in this world.“

Radka Denemarková. Foto: Peter Župník

For Austrian author Robert Menasse fear means “living in the shadow of a threat we cannot define.  Fear as a social phenomenon is very widespread, it is a symptom of society having lost something important.“  In recent years we have experienced a paradigm shift, people have started demanding a return from individual to collective identity, which is linked to the past. We are losing track of what democracy means and what makes things more complicated is that in Europe politicians are elected nationally but are expected to be involved in the politics of 27 countries. People are turning to the past which they find easier to imagine than the future. „This breeds fear and that, in turn, is a boon for populists,“ and their promises of a wonderful future. In the past they used euphemisms (as in 1984) but these days they resort to empty clichés.  „And this is where our chance is: we can occupy this terrain in future and start writing the truth.“

Robert Menasse. Foto: Peter Župník

The discussion then focussed on European issues. György Konrád described the EU as a varied, multi-storey structure. „However, we must not be afraid and we have to keep adding more and more storeys.“ Radka Denemarkova, on the other hand, does not see the EU as a multistoreyed building but rather as a village with individual little houses, whose inhabitants have to find a common language. As long as they fear the uknown and inexplicable they will seek security in their national flag. The mindset of people is changing but we see all over Europe that experience is untransferrable and that all nations, want to see themselves as the victims of history.“ Pondering the nature of democracy, Robert Menasse pointed out that it ought to guarantee the rights of the minority rather than the majority. „For me democracy is a compromise with myself as an enlightened citizen, a category that will always be in the minority but the question is how to prevent us from being eradicated.“ A referendum democracy is certainly not a solution. „If it were to be introduced in Austria within two weeks the death penalty would be reintroduced and within four weeks we would see trains transporting foreigners out of Austria,“ warned Robert Menasse in conclusion.