Bosnian Blues: Culture, Pressure, Suffocation

Writen by: Nenad Veličković

Text is published by Heinrich Böll Fondation

In his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas49 describes, in an exciting and convincing manner, the establishment, development and role of the press (the media), in the political fight for the organization of public space. Habermas does not doubt at all that democracy – as a tool of the bourgeoisie – depends less on the literacy of the ones that vote than on the strength of the voice of the ones being voted for. This is the reason why, I must add, in countries with a young democracy such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, public education sets very low aims when it comes to literacy; schools do not make an effort to install skills for analytical, critical and independent opinion into the future voters, which is why their expectations from the government cannot be high.

Conflicts at the Boundaries

A fight for shaping public opinion in Bosnia and Herzegovina is fought parallel to the fight for the cultural/collective identity. Culture is not understood as the socalled high culture or, even as a synonym for civilization, but as a means of national
homogenization (which is the issue Gellner, Smith, Anderson and others wrote about50); culture is primarily national cul-ture and working for and within culture, merely the mimicry of nationalism. At the first and the most visible level, the fight we are talking about, in the public space, in the culture, is fought between three nationalisms. Each of them controls one part of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in their respective territories, they have at their disposal the entire state apparatus (media, police, judiciary, education, etc51). The probability that one of the nationalisms would hit the other across the boundaries of its territory is not very high, except in the returnees’ settlements, where the power is fairly balanced. An example for this is the conflict related to the national group of school subjects in some returnees’ settlements in the Republika Srpska, or in the areas with established two schools under one roof, where Bosniak and Croat children are separated according to their ethnic affiliation, even though they live and grow up in the same municipalities.
In other words, the three nationalisms in a divided country are not each other’s genuine enemies. What seems as a mutual fight in the public space is primarily a smokescreen used to divert the public’s attention from the country’s real problems.

Pressures within the Boundaries

The real, far less visible struggle is taking place between the nationalisms and the so-called civic option, which is ethnically unaffiliated or international (pro-European, maybe?), and whose standards are different. This option, which is marginalized within the parliaments, partially because social democracy has taken a right turn in its activities aimed at collecting votes, can be found within what is called the civil (civic?) society: among independent intellectuals and non-governmental organisations.
By focusing on the rights of individuals,in the sense that human (individual) rights are more comprehensive than collective rights and that, as such, they are supposed to be more visible, if not superior to the collective rights (cultural, national), this political option is disturbing (but not quite endangering) the domination of the nationalisms.
However, even though it is not directly threatened, the force of the state apparatus
used by the government (of national parties) will act every time the criticism of nationalisms becomes loud, and therefore, visible. These actions will be presented in the form of pressure through the media that will bring individuals or organisations (e.g. Open Society Foundations) into disrepute; or through cultural politics that will refuse financing critics and alternative views (e.g. Hasanbegović’s policies in Croatia); or even through judicial or economic measures (e.g. Feral Tribune). The result of such pressures is the reduction of space for criticising the existing social patterns. Public opinion control is achieved through marginalizing the critics, exhausting them financially or, if this is impossible or insufficient, by disqualifying
them as traitors, foreign mercenaries or as being insufficiently patriotic. One of the reasons why the government needs to defend its positions in this way, is that it has not set the  rules of the game in the media space at any level. The truth belongs to the louder and the stronger, and not to the ones equipped with facts, knowledge and evidence. For this reason, the potential of social networks cannot ameliorate the consequences of the above described reduction of space for criticising the existing practices. Twenty years of the international community’s investing in the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina havenot paid off significantly. There are plenty of reasons for this, but I find that the key one is losing sight of the role of education in shaping public opinion.

Education for Stagnation

Through socialization processes, nationalism in schools imposes collective cultural values to every child, using indoctrination as the dominant method. The choice of music, favourite athletes, required readings, actors and the values promoted in cultural activities, is related to the governing ideology, and its basic values, which significantly determines the identity of a young person. In schools, the concept of culture as civilization has been reduced to the ethnic component. Three parallel education systems– Serb, Croat and Bosniak ones – with different syllabuses, dominated by onesided narratives, represent and interpret reality by favouring their own group in an uncritical manner and by presenting the other two groups as enemies. Literature, music, theatre, art, tradition, folklore and heritage are primarily ethnic and separate, and only infrequently general and common.
The outdated concept of student assessment, poorly designed external graduation exam, and other forms of irrelevant evaluation, the power-based authority of teachers and boring syllabus unadjusted to the needs of the children, constitute forms of pressure that suffocate
the freedom of opinion and expression, and limit the potential of civil society to reform itself by leaving behind the existing, obviously bad practices.A good text by a journalist in a magazine or a good show cannot achieve much without the good lessons of a teacher in a
textbook on media literacy and culture.

The entire publication is available HERE.