In English Voices From Spain

The silencing distortion

Photo by Olya Kuzovkina on Unsplash

Originally published in Spanish. “‘La distorsión silenciadora”. Mikel Arteta. El País.

25th April 2018

Many speak of Catalonia’s ‘silent majority’, but few discuss just how it was silenced: basically, nationalists activated a fear of disagreeing. According to [Catalonian fact tank] GESOP, 91.7% of voters of the [far-left Catalonian nationalist coalition] CUP freely discuss the independence process, while over half of non-nationalists choose to remain silent.

Their now frightened silence was once tied to the shame that we all feel when we face general disapproval: it happens at times that the majority do not believe something, yet individuals are convinced that all those around him do. A case in point: in Catalonia everyone believes the majority favours Catalan-only language immersion in schools, despite opinion polls (Gad3 institute, September 2015) refuting this: if given the choice, in private, between immersion, bilingualism or trilingualism [English, Catalan and Spanish], only 14.4% choose the immersion model.

In such situations a gap emerges between our perceptions and the opinions we believe others hold. Feeling insecure, we prefer to adapt to what we deem the majority view. But this generally useful disposition implies sacrificing our better judgement in the face of an imagined consensus against it. There are two ways to put an end to this worrisome short-sightedness. The first is to cave: if those who privately abhor immersion end up believing in its benefits, the upshot will be a real pro-immersion majority. The second is to get people to stop claiming in public what they would deny in private. Several studies show that if 20% of the artificially depicted minority choose to oppose the dominant discourse, the remaining 80% will find the courage to publicly acknowledge their own beliefs. Consequently, the unanimity surrounding immersion could come undone if 20% of those who prefer a different model defied the system that imposes a language used daily by 31.6% of Catalonians on the children of the Spanish-speaking 55%.

To keep this from happening, Catalonian nationalists extend the illusion of consensus through a strategy that distorts the social reality. They silence, bury and confuse a self-conscious majority. For example, when a family in Balaguer demanded that their children receive 25% of classes in Spanish, they were brutally harassed. The mayor ([member of the left-wing nationalist party] ERC) and the president of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) spoke of the ‘injustice’ of having ‘the rights of one person prevail over those of 50 students’. The online media platform Nació Digital revealed personal information to single them out. A journalist tweeted: ‘The family is hanging up the phone. Way to go, facing the consequences. PS: The world is very small.’ He was referring to the indoor playground (Petit Món, or ‘Small World’) run by the family. Several parents boycotted it. Pressure from a range of actors and a lack of institutional support allowed us to glimpse the extortionary nature of the scheme. The family closed down and left the town–and its school.

The extreme nature of this case reveals the strategy. And it shows its weaknesses: the family’s choice to overcome their fears led to panic at the prospect of seeing an influx of complaints tear the whole edifice apart. The PTA president feared that, if the court mandate was executed, similar demands would spring up ‘like mushrooms’. But the strategy of distortion is more far-reaching: nationalists have built a custom-made public administration. When the whole regional public sphere espouses a portrayal–neither accurate nor neutral–of an exclusively Catalan-speaking society, speakers of Spanish will feel alone–or indebted. All nation-building progresses by denying and atomizing.

The stigma associated with one’s origins condemns some citizens while elevating an elite that blocks competition. Potential competitors for civil-servant positions will be slowed down wherever Catalan is a requirement. Given the existing school system, the mobility of workers from other regions is discouraged. And citizens see their linguistic rights restricted and are deprived of an Administration based on merit and ability, both trumped by the bias in favour of Catalan.

With this national edifice propped up and the hands of resistants tied, the identity of the few is placed before the equality of all. The worst-case scenario is the threat of secession. The best-case is a demand for special fiscal treatment.

And somehow, in the midst of all this, a million people took to the streets in Barcelona to say that enough is enough! Declaring themselves Catalonian, in two languages and with three flags. They asked for law and equality. They undid the dissonance, cracking wide open the fallacious ‘Catalanist consensus’. And yet, irrespective of this social awakening, still some Constitutionalist parties remain intent on protecting the Catalan-only immersion system, defining Catalonia as a ‘nation’ or improving the region’s financing. All while sidestepping Spaniards’ common institutions. The situation is twisted: just like in totalitarian countries, we will end up sustaining what we know hardly anyone wants. Instead of defending ourselves, much better to dance attendance on them.

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