On 7 October, a court in Athens, Greece, convicted leaders of the far-right Golden Dawn party as directing a criminal organization. Marina Terkourafi, professor of Sociolinguistics, discusses the landmark ruling for the Leiden International Studies Blog.
The rise and fall of Golden Dawn
Golden Dawn was founded in 1983, but it was only in 2010 that the extreme-right political movement managed to get a strong foothold in both the local and national political arena. Known for using neo-nazi ideology and imagery to pursue an extreme-right political agenda, over the years, party members have been tied to a series of murders and violent attacks against immigrants and political opponents. Now, after a trial that lasted more than five years, Golden Dawn has been labelled a criminal organization by the Greek court, effectively banning it from political activity. A total of 57 party members, including its leadership, were convicted for either directing or joining a criminal organization.
According to Terkourafi, a closer look at language ideologies can help explain why the political discourse of Golden Dawn resonated with some voters. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Greek intellectuals emphasized the idea of an unbroken linguistic continuity of the Greek language from ancient to modern times. Golden Dawn used this idea to promote parallel ideas of racial purity of the Greek nation. Terkourafi: ‘This largely linguistically-founded perception of continuity is a core ingredient of contemporary Greek identity. But it has also provided grounds for a discourse of biological nationalism espoused by Golden Dawn.’
‘This discourse is seen in Golden Dawn’s defining as Greek and admitting among its ranks only those whose parents are Greek and in providing services such as soup kitchens, healthcare and childcare for “Greeks only”,’ she explains. Other elements of language ideologies exploited by Golden Dawn to political ends include a strong belief in the superiority of the Greek language and a linguistic intolerance towards other languages spoken in Greece.
The racism embedded in our language
Terkourafi argues that the inescapable element of language means that the verdict is only the beginning of uprooting racism and neo-nazism from European societies. ‘If nationalism defines the terms of the language, one has no choice but to use these same terms to express oneself. If the discourse of Greek “‘banal nationalism” encompasses the linguistic elements emphasized in the Discourses of Golden Dawn, it is well-nigh impossible to speak or think outside of these categories without sounding un-Greek. The problem facing us, therefore, is that, once the “scandalous” element is taken out of populist discourses, what is left may be too familiar to easily rebuff, requiring a complete rethinking of what it means to be a national subject and how that can be re-imagined in 21st-century terms.’