„We must all work, constantly, every day, to protect human rights and continue fighting to ensure that they are respected.“

Excerpt from the public lecture “Does every crisis justify a crisis of human rights? Crisis-related considerations” by Ruth Wodak at the mdw on the occasion of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10/12/2020).1
Andrea Glauser & Ruth Wodak © Stephan Polzer

Through her research on language, discourse, power, and society, Ruth Wodak has, over many years, contributed significantly to a better understanding of the socio-political conditions in which we live, specifically about the interdependence of discourses, power, identities, and society. In the early 1990s, she participated in the development of critical discourse studies and, together with colleagues, pioneered the “discourse-historical approach”. In her presentation, Ruth Wodak examined the crisis communication of various governments by analysing the context-dependent relationship between the COVID crisis, the measures put in place to deal with it, and the ensuing restrictions on human rights. Her observations built on a study examining datasets covering the period from March 2020 to June 2020. In her lecture, she posed two guiding questions: “On the one hand, how do pluralistic democratic governments achieve consent for restrictive measures? (…). And on the other, how are obvious violations of human rights that such restrictions entail discursively legitimised?”

(…) In my study (…) I analysed in systematic detail government speeches and press releases—drawing on Austrian, German, French, Swedish, New Zealand, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Greek corpora. This abductive and comparative discourse analysis, that is, an analysis that oscillates between hypotheses, theories, and data analysis, revealed four kinds of framing rhetorics:

Firstly, a religious Christian rhetoric, that is, the discursive construction of a saviour and—as the linguist George Lakoff2 conclusively proves in his analysis of American election campaigns—a strict and devout father of the nation, itself viewed as a “family”. Secondly, a dialogical, matter-of-fact rhetoric where measures are explained clearly and comprehensibly and where the discursive construction of the nurturing parent tends to feature prominently. Thirdly, a rhetoric of war: this pandemic, this crisis is understood as a war waged by the nation against the virus under the leadership of a military commander. And lastly, we encounter a cost-benefit rhetoric, in other words, a certain disregard of the mortal danger, an attempt to carry on with everyday life, based on a traditionally assumed deep mutual trust between a government and its citizens3.

Let us start with examples from Austria and Germany, in terms of the verbs and adjectives used as well as the semantic fields predominantly drawn upon. On 6 April 2020, the national-conservative Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said: “Easter week will be a critical week for us. It will be a week that is decisive in determining whether the resurrection after Easter, which we are all hopeful of, can take place as normal” (ZIB Spezial, 6 Apr. 2020). The Christian holidays obviously played a big role. This promise, it was argued, could be guaranteed and, secondly, if somebody were very sick or even died, resurrection would ensue. Religious metaphors were invoked extensively. This involves above all the legitimisation of values and mythopoesis; a certain religious narrative, establishing the frame for the Austrian government‘s crisis communication.

The conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, focuses on a dialogue with the public, not on top-down communication. She keeps a low profile and makes only a handful of public appearances. The role played by experts, therefore, has become all the more important. In one of her few speeches (22 Mar. 2020), she emphasises that, to her, it is “important to address directly all those”—here, she is trying to establish a relationship—”who are now complying with the necessary rules of conduct. […] We all”—she includes herself in this group—”have to do without [many of the things we take for granted] for the time being. I am very moved by the fact that so many are keeping to these rules.” This is an explicit indication of empathy. “This is how we show care for the elderly and for those with pre-existing conditions.” Here, one can recognise a moralising as well as a rationalising legitimation. We are probably all familiar with the remark in which Merkel explicitly and sadly refers to the widescale restrictions, namely that “the constraints on personal freedoms are an affront to democracy” (23 Apr. 2020). She also remarks on how these measures were for her “one of the most difficult decisions of her political life”. This points to legitimacy by authority. (…)

Ulrike Sych © Stephan Polzer

To summarise: I would first like to address the dangers and challenges that arise from the entanglement and interdependency of human rights, crises, and restrictions on freedom, and the contradictions that these entail. Importantly, we are experiencing strong nationalistic tendencies. Countries have been engaged in a sort of competition to determine “who is the best” in coping with the crisis. Secondly, widespread conspiracy theories have emerged, with scapegoats being created to reduce the complexity of the overall situation. People are looking for simple solutions, heavily justified by specific values and myths—the exclusion of vulnerable groups and the possibility of a generational conflict. And finally, there has been a clear rise in authoritarian tendencies, including those that challenge the freedom of the press, as is the case, for example, in Hungary during the lockdown. This means that we are potentially witnessing a normalisation of restrictions. This would imply a crisis of human rights4. That restrictions are necessary to protect lives and health, and that we should do everything to ensure this, is obvious. But such restrictions should not become the “new normal”, as it is often referred to.

What does all of this imply for science and for research? Science depends on discussions, needs time and a great deal of curiosity, and of course, money. It needs publicity and discussion. We need to examine the effects of different variants of crisis communication and learn from them for the future: What works best when having to communicate such restrictions? How can one explain such measures with a sense of proportion? How can one best describe complex issues, openly and transparently, in a dialogue-oriented manner? We have to deconstruct the conspiracy theories and the disinformation and to counter it with accurate facts. How can we best achieve all this? We must not fall prey to nationalism; we must continue to work across borders. Moreover, for me personally, this implies what I would call reflected deceleration—which enables creative, medium and long-term envisioning of different scenarios based on participatory discussion and dialogue.

It was in 2018 and at the initiative of Rector Ulrike Sych that the mdw began observing Human Rights Day with an annual evening event on a specific theme. As an international university with students from over 70 nations, the mdw has set itself the explicit goal of anchoring both transculturality and a lived culture of equal treatment in its everyday activities. Furthermore, democracy and the freedom of art, science, and teaching have been written into the mdw’s mission statement as guiding principles.

2018’s event saw the theme of “Dignity – Freedom – Justice: Human Rights in the Context of Culture” discussed by Marlene Streeruwitz, Andrea Kuhn, Golnar Shahyar, and Beate Winkler with moderation provided by Corinna Milborn. And in 2019, Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński, Marko Kölbl, Anna Sporrer, and Shzr Ee Tan (Moderation: Rosa Reitsamer, mdw) discussed “Studying Free from Discrimination: Strategies against Racisms, Sexisms, and Exclusion at Arts Universities”. All previous events in this series can be streamed on demand at the mdwMediathek.

Translation: Paul Talbot

  1. The entire lecture is available online at mediathek.mdw.ac.at/menschenrechte2020, introduced and moderated by Andrea Glauser (IKM). Transcription by Heidi Wilm. Edited by Ruth Wodak.
  2. Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
  3. Wodak, R. (2020). „Krisenkommunikation in ‚Corona-Zeiten‘“. In T. Schmidinger & J. Weidenholzer (Hg.), Virenregime (330–341). Vienna: Bahoe; Wodak, R. (2021). „Crisis Communication and Crisis Management during COVID“. Global Discourse [in press].
  4. See Habermas, J. & Günther, K. (6 May, 2020). „ein Grundrecht gilt grenzenlos“. Zeit Online. https://www.zeit.de/2020/20/grundrechte-lebensschutz-freiheit-juergen-habermas-klaus-guenther; Human Rights Watch (19 March, 2020a). „Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response“. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response
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