VAŠEČKA INTERVIEW: Migration fears, brainwashed teenagers and impending global catastrophe
Peter Sterančák / July 7, 2019
( 15 min read )
The joke goes like this: "Sociologists don´t do it. They just observe." Well, Prof. Vašečka is a sociologist and his observations are certainly thought-provoking and valuable, which is why we, in Il Ponte, decided he is a great candidate for a long interview in this edition. However, when it comes to discussing important sociological issues, he can be also witty, proving he does not take himself too seriously. As you can guess from the title, we covered a wide variety of topics: migration, globalization, polarization, communication, education, space exploration, and everything in-between. We met at the Bratislava Policy Institute where he is a director. For those of you who are not familiar with Prof. Vašečka, we included a small biography at the end of this interview; so, feel free to see for yourself whether he "just observes"...
Your main focus of research is on issues of migration, ethnicity, race and minority problems. We’ve had a lively public debate ever since 2014. What is the main difference between studying migration in the academic context and as a public discourse?
People that are studying migration know very well – from history – that migration is the most natural thing characterizing mankind from the beginning of its history. Public discourse is very concerned by recent migration and it usually perceives it as something unique, that has no precedent in history. It is perceived not as a chance, or challenge but only exclusively as a problem. We see it in most public opinion polls and studies that try to understand people’s perception of migration. Practically everywhere in the world we can see various stereotypes towards people coming to some territory, and everywhere we notice general misunderstandings about the reasons for migration. So, I would characterize public discourse as one driven mostly by emotion and which doesn’t take into account a broader picture.
This was the story of Slovakia in the past few years. I’ve been working in the field of migration for at least 15 years and I remember how I was writing my book on migration 10 years ago, trying to explain to both the academic and the general public what are the inevitable problems that will sooner or later come knocking on our doors. People back then were not listening, and very specifically, many people said that what I describe is far from reality and that they can’t even imagine it happening. They perceived Slovakia as a poor country that would not be intriguing for anybody from the outside… I was probably among the first in Slovakia one to conduct a complex, both qualitative and quantitative study about migration prepared for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 10 years ago. Public policymakers did not utilize it, at all. It was practically unnoticed outside the academic field, although practically everything that the study outlined as a prognosis for the future happened later in a very dramatic and extremely emotional form during the so-called migration crisis.
Yes, because nobody is really speaking about benefits of migration in public, right?
No, it’s even more complex. Those who are speaking about the benefits of migration are very often stigmatized. They are “migrant-lovers”. You know this famous Slovak word, “slniečkári”, I don’t know how to translate it into English. It is stigmatizing and it does not take into account serious studies analysing – if you want – desirable migration. What we are facing today in Slovakia is bizarre in many ways. Politicians react to the public which doesn’t want to even hear the word migration by scaring people about migration; on the other hand the government prepares legal norms and governmental materials that are aimed at increasing the mobility of the foreign workforce, as they call it. Strong pressure from the business sector to open the relatively restrictive measures as far as migration is concerned is more powerful than any arguments based on serious academic work. But government officials speak only about mobility, they expect that “mobile workers” will return home at a certain point. Some will, no doubt, but many others might stay. In other words, we are committing the same mistakes as countries such as Germany, or Austria, committed 50 years ago. We didn’t learn the lesson that when people are coming to a country, some of them may stay here.
You also teach Migration in Central Europe, as a course at Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA), and I guess that people who have such a strong attitude against migration and have strong anti-liberal sentiment in them, would assume that it must be in line with the liberal ideology, so to speak. Perhaps they imagine you promote open-borders and “let-everyone-in” type of sentiments. So, how would you characterize teaching the course about migration at BISLA?
Firstly, there’s an absolute misunderstanding and misconception of liberal arts outside the Anglo-Saxon world. Liberal arts are not about promoting liberalism, and those who are saying this simply don’t get it. To make it even more funny, it sometimes reminds me of the story from the 90s when one MP from Mečiar’s HZDS party didn’t really get the phrase “non-partisan oriented” in English. He thought that a certain NGO, which was claiming that it’s non-partisan does not have partisans on board and he started make a noise why partisans are actually mentioned. (Editor’s note: Partisans were guerrilla fighters who fought the Nazis in WW2). It’s the same. The phrase ‘liberal arts’ means something else.
Of course, the other thing is that the atmosphere at BISLA is relatively liberal, progressive and open-minded because of the nature of the teachers and students there. That’s another issue. But to connect it with the topic of migration, and migration in Central Europe, is false. We discuss various aspects of migration research, also those that would not be very popular among human rights activists. We discuss – for instance – also the population changes in Africa that will inevitably bring more and more migration into the European Union, and that consequently also Slovakia will have to deal with it. The reaction to it will definitely be some combination of restrictions and some open windows for migrants who will either be refugees, or some of whom will be considered desirable migrants because of the skills they may bring into this country. So, the discussion about migration will be fuelling public discourse for years to come. Very soon it may be the most important topic in the political debate in our country. This already happened in many other countries in the world. For example, when we think about Great Britain and the recent problem of Brexit, it started with the migration of central-eastern Europeans, not so much with those coming to Britain from Jamaica, or Bangladesh. Paradoxically for us in central Europe, people from Bangladesh or Pakistan were very often evaluated by local British people as people who are culturally closer to Brits than, let’s say, Polish or Slovak migrants.
Our theme of this printed issue is polarization. Migration is certainly a very polarizing topic today, but who, or what, do you see as main agents of polarization in today’s world? Many blame social media, or populist political leaders, for instance. As an academic how do you see the whole problem of polarization?
Firstly, it may seem like a banal fact but I need to stress that every modern society is polarized to certain extent. There is no society that is not polarized. Of course, there are countries that are relatively cohesive. Very good examples are most of the Scandinavian countries that are able to secure social cohesion on their territory quite successfully. All of the central European countries are, however, deeply polarized and it’s the result both of cleavages coming from the pre-communist past, and the transformation of society since 1989. And polarization of these countries has been deepening in the last few years.
As for the reasons, there are many explanations. I believe that, first of all, history is somehow speeding up. People have an increasing problem digesting what is happening around them. They believe that they are losing control of their lives and they search for somebody to blame for it, while not being able to identify that group. Hence people are returning to old-fashioned ways of pointing at certain groups, based on ethnicity, race or ideology. That’s why we are divided into conservatives and liberals, good Slovaks and bad Slovaks, for example. And to add also the issue of class here – I believe that behind all this polarization is also a hidden return of class divisions. For instance, six years ago Thomas Piketty wrote a very influential book, Capital in the 21st Century, where he basically said that polarization of most post-modern countries in the world is a result of real economic polarization in those societies. He writes that the gap between the rich and the poor has never been so big since the end of the 19th century and that all previous polarizations of this kind ended up in revolutions and wars. So, we are somehow repeating the same old mistakes and we don’t understand their potential consequences.
So, would you say that the source of polarization is mostly economic inequality?
Well, not necessarily only economic. It is simply the feeling of many that the equality promised by the Enlightenment during the French Revolution disappeared. Let’s remember those three important words of the French Revolution: égalité, fraternité, liberté. Now people have stopped believing that égalité exists any more. They may have a question mark about the other two but they are deeply questioning égalité, and in a way, they are right. Piketty is not saying something that was usual for the old-fashioned types of socialists. He’s saying that the problem of modern capitalism is that it’s not functioning based on liberal values any more, the way it was projected by Adam Ferguson within the Scottish Enlightenment. Suddenly, all those virtues that defined capitalism are not with us any more. In this sense, I believe that Piketty is right. Class divisions are back, and in an extremely destructive form.
That reminds me that you recently had a debate with the blogger Samo Marec, and the journalist Andrej Bán where you discussed the problem of how to reach people on the other side of the divide. So, how to talk to people in a deeply polarized society?
Well, it’s even more complex. The first problem is that to secure social cohesion in a post-modern country is a challenge which is almost breathtaking when you compare it to the past. Speaking about cohesion, we are living in a world that is extremely individualistic. We hear it from every corner: you should focus on yourself; you should be an individual; take care of your family but forget anyone else. At the same time, people are not living in natural communities. In other words, they are not living in gemeinschaft, they are living only in gesellschaft, which is cold and doesn’t have the natural ties it once had. People often don’t even know who their neighbours are. In such an individualistic society, however, we hear from advertisements and the media that somebody out there wants your empathy. But people pay taxes and believe that they don’t get what they paid for. That is often false, but we know that perception is more important than reality itself. To secure social cohesion in such a situation is a dramatic challenge.
Lastly, society is being polarized politically by the new phenomenon of social media, where we tend to prefer to be in touch with people that have the same opinions as we do. Therefore, if you actually start with the social media at the age of thirty, you’re fine. I mean, you still know that there is a world out there which may be different from the virtual one. But kids who start on the internet at the age of ten are systematically seeking only people with the same opinions. And manipulators constantly repeat to them that they shouldn’t follow the mainstream media and consequently some of them can be literally brainwashed by the age of sixteen. What we see now is that such people may be convinced that there’s just one right answer to all questions, for the rest of your life. This is the responsibility of social media and it’s a completely new phenomenon. At the moment we don´t know what it will bring in the future, it is very new phenomenon. We know how it is happening, but we don’t have satisfactory solutions for it.
Does it mean that face-to-face communication is still the best communication tool available for such polarizing debates?
Well, I believe so. Even when you have a very nasty experience facing somebody who aggressively disagrees with you, face-to-face communication still makes you think about the world differently. Though, I am not suggesting we should all talk to fascists all the time. I am puzzled by their world and I don’t understand the way they collect arguments. In the case of Slovak fascists you may get the feeling that they’re living in some parallel reality. So far, I’ve not been able to penetrate into their world and understand how they collect these so-called causal attributions. And that is a problem, because when you don’t even understand the principles on which others function, then you’re lost.
Polarizing topics today shape the public discourse everywhere. Whether it’s migration, LGBT rights, or religious morality. At the same time, we don’t talk enough about real existential problems, like climate change, which is closely connected to migration. Some researchers say that climate change will trigger mass migration that has never been seen before. How big of a problem is that?
Well, I deeply believe it will be a significant problem in the future. I’m not absolutely sure whether we will be able to react to it, though. Honestly speaking, the same situation was in the Roman Empire centuries ago and the Romans dealt with it in a very brutal way. Undesirable migrants were simply killed.
That’s the famous dilemma illustrated by the example of people on a lifeboat while another boat is sinking nearby. All of them can’t stay onboard, because it’s a small lifeboat. So, they’re trying to get onboard from the water and suddenly the captain distributes axes and orders to chop off the hands of those who are trying to get onboard. People obey the captain and they save their lives. In a way it’s a wise decision because if those others got onboard, the lifeboat would sink and everybody on the boat would die. However, the question is - will those people that saved themselves by chopping off the hands of others be able to live with themselves once they get back on the land? Are they going to live same lives? Well, this is our dilemma today, and I believe this should be a dilemma not of human rights activists, but of all people taking humanism and enlightenment seriously. Mass migration to which we would eventually react violently may change us as Europeans. Europe, in both the Christian and secular tradition after the Enlightenment, is based on humanity. If something is a genuine European tradition it’s the tradition of humanity. When we will react to upcoming mass migration violently, we may change ourselves, it will be not us any more; we will not be not Europeans any more.
This is a very real problem, so why we are preoccupied with artificial problems? This is something that worries me a lot. Is the protection of the traditional family really the most important problem, in Slovakia? Well, not really. What actually is a traditional family? Demographic decline is a real issue, climate change is real.
I believe that another such neglected topic that is nonetheless crucial is education. Recent polls documented rising sympathy for parties with extreme ideologies among high school students. It’s not just students, though. Just today the Slovak Academy of Science published the outcome of their research on how much Slovaks trust science. I think that a third of respondents expressed the least possible trust toward science. There’s also this conspiratorial, anti-experts’ attitude that is spreading across societies today.
Well, as a sociologist I have a feeling of satisfaction. Many among us, social scientists, have been warning for years that our country is becoming extremely anomic and nihilistic. We warned that people had lost their compass of what is good and what is bad. People have been losing trust on both the horizontal and vertical level. They’ve been losing trust between each other, between people, and they’re losing trust in institutions. Now we’re reaping the fruits of it.
For example, in a few days there will be elections to the European Parliament. Some western Europeans ask me, “how come there’s such a low trust in the EU parliament in our countries?” I usually respond with “and why would you expect that there will be higher trust?” Slovaks don’t trust any institution. They don’t trust the police, their national government, or the parliament. So, why should they trust the EU Parliament? This is the problem. People are full of distrust and anomy. And they don’t trust even science and scientists since they don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust vaccination because they believe somebody is trying to poison them. They believe there’s a conspiracy behind almost everything in society, but everything starts with anomy that came in the process of transformation after 1989 that was very fast and dramatic. I often say that the best of the best lost hope, and the worst of the worst lost any inhibition.
Talking about the young generation, you have teenage children yourself. What do you think the world will look like when they will be at your age?
This is a good question (smiles). I think about this a lot. I don’t want to be apocalyptic because I dislike it when I am like that. I still believe that mankind will be able to improve with the help of various new technologies that are emerging. I also believe that we will be able to do something with climate change. In this sense I believe in mankind. At the same time, I know that technology on its own will not save us. I am relatively sceptical about the reactions of people who want to live their lives.
Often people that study existential problems of mankind comment and write about it for years. They believe that public policymakers will pick up their thoughts and apply them in reality. We are often quite pushy in our effort to go beyond our standard academic life and influence politicians and policymakers. Usually the results are very problematic.
I still remember one geologist who was interviewed by CNN, I think. He was standing on a broken dam in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the reporter asked him: “So, how do you feel now when you see all this flooding” and he said, “I have a feeling of satisfaction”. They asked him, puzzled, “Why?” He replied, “Because for years, I’ve been trying to warn the city officials that this will happen sooner or later, that the dams will not survive a big hurricane. They were laughing and saying that I’m apocalyptic. Well, now they got it, so I am satisfied.”
I don’t want to have this type of satisfaction but I believe that mankind will only react to the real dramatic problems when they become impossible to ignore. I’m optimistic about technologies that might help us to deal with many problems but, at the same time, very pessimistic because it might be too late for us to realize those problems. In this respect, I believe that the lives of my children will be tougher in many areas than the life I was used to. Technology will improve many aspects of their lives but simultaneously they will be the generation that will be suffering not only from climate change but also from permanent surveillance on every corner as a result of a polarized world and societies. Their personal freedom will be endangered to such a level that we can compare it only to World War II. I think that what the future will bring for them will be dramatic. This is what I am scared of the most. Dramatic situations, no matter where they will come from, may bring more problems when technology is used to diminish our personal freedom.
Well, to not give you the chance to be apocalyptic and to end on a positive note… What trend, event, issue or political development today gives you hope that we may avoid the worst-case scenario and built a better future?
I will start in a very non-standard way. Before I was born, mankind landed on the Moon. During my lifetime everything was somehow connected to space. It wasn’t very visible and I remember some tragedies, such as, when the two US space shuttles, Challenger and Columbia , exploded. Now, however, I am very optimistic that the future of space exploration will continue much quicker. As mankind, we desperately need it. Psychologically, we desperately need the last frontier. To return to migration, in the past mankind was always penetrating new territories and it gave people hope: “There is a world somewhere out there where we can live more freely, more peacefully, or more prosperously…” Now we have lost that option. Psychologically, I feel, that we are completely paralyzed on this planet. We feel suffocated by it. Of course, eventually this planet can become even uninhabitable for us so we need to think about space. That’s the first thing – space exploration.
The second positive thing I would mention is connected to climate change and the whole crisis it produces. In spite of the dramatic growth in human population, which is really unprecedented in our human history, issues such as hunger or dramatic genocides are happening less and less. Of course, you can argue that in relatively recent history there was a famine in Ethiopia only 30 years ago. In Rwanda there was a horrific genocide only 20 years ago. But I would argue that in comparison to how we lived in previous centuries, mankind is becoming more and more civilized. I know this might be provocative for some, after the story of the Holocaust, etc… However, we reached the point where there is almost no famine in the world, or diseases that only yesterday were deadly have been eradicated. On the whole, I feel positive about this level we reached globally. I also believe that we have successfully introduced typically liberal virtues like equality to the whole world. At the same time, I see that we have reached a certain zero point now, and all these virtues we gained are once again endangered.
In a way, I believe, that we are living in the best world that we can possibly live in, but that that world is dramatically endangered. Probably even during my lifetime we may witness backsliding to the past.
Well, I tried to end on a positive note …
Prof. Vašečka’s short biography
Doc. PhDr. Michal Vašečka, PhD. (1972) is a sociologist by background and focuses his interests on issues of ethnicity, race, antisemitism, and migration studies. As an Associate Professor, he has been at Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) since 2015 and he is a director of the Bratislava Policy Institute. He operated at the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno (2002-2017) and at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at Comenius University (2006-2009). Michal Vašečka is a founder of the Center for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture, he served a director of the CVEK (2006-2012), was program director at the Slovak think-tank Institute of Public Affairs (1998-2005), and was a consultant for the World Bank (2000-2008 and 2011-2012). Since 2012, Michal Vašečka has served as a representative of the Slovak Republic in the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). He is a vice-chairman of the governmental committee VRAX tackling extremism and racism in Slovakia and a recipient of the Award for special contribution in the field of human rights by the Slovak Minister of Justice.