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unclassified - 20 05 2001 - 20:37 - katatonik

Not entirely innocent?

The results are not yet published, but some of the results are already in the public: The “Sozialwissenschaftliche Studiengesellschaft” carried out a poll about antisemitism in Austria. According to an article published on the website of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF), some of its results are that 24 percent of Austrians think it would be better “not to have any Jews in Austria” (amongst self-declared voters of the Freedom Party, this opinion is held by 80 percent), that 25 percent think Jews are “not entirely innocent” with respect to the emergence antisemitism, whereas 44 percent rejected this statement (Freedom Party voters: 91 percent answered in the affirmative). I think by “rejecting this statement” (... lehnten diese Aussage ab”), the authors mean that it was answered in the negative, and not that the question as such was rejected as irrelevant, preposterous, or whatever.
To the question as to whether their opinion about Jews had lately become better, worse or staid the same, 14 percent answered that it had become worse, 6 percent that it had become better. Amongst voters of the Freedom Party, 41 percent said it had worsened. 1.177 people in total were questioned.

The results, in their entirety, are not yet published. Neither are the questions. The complete study, we are informed, will be made available in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, the following questions will then be answered. Nagging questions: What options were people given? Were they asked things like “do you think that Jews are completely innocent concerning the emergence of antisemitism”? If so, what exactly is the concept of “innocence” supposed to involve? Moral responsibility, as in “it’s their own fault”? Political responsibility, as in “Jewish organizations can do more to combat antisemitism”? Historical causation, as in “the behaviour of certain Jewish people contributed to the rise of antisemitism, though it had other, more important causes, as well”? And does affirming that “Jews were not entirely innocent” justify the verdict of antisemitism? How many people refused to answer this statement? How many declared themselves uncomfortable with this particular way of asking questions? Is this a responsible way to carry out a poll?
As far as the presently published results are concerned, one cannot but resist the impression of unprofessional and politically dubious sloppiness – both on the part of the journalists, who published partial results without placing them in their proper context, and on the part of those who carried out the poll, asking vague and tendentious questions prone to confirm their initial suspicions about antisemitism amongst Freedom Party voters. Even the article on ORF-ON which publishes these partial results testifies to an underlying joy about what are supposed to be horrendous news – Angstlust, a “zest for fear”, is here again – that strangely self-destructive happiness about all Austrians being antisemitic beasts, frequently found amongst “resistance” activists who like to think of themselves as isolated, morally upright heroes surrounded by the swamps of Nazism and the like. One can psychologically explain said article through the (possible) frustration on the part of ORF-journalists, given the increasing pressure on journalists exerted by Freedom Party politicians – still, journalistic integrity is not restored by uncritically acting out one’s gut-reflexes of revenge.

In an article published in 1973, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put forward the thesis that a public opinion, as conceived of by those who carry out such polls, does not in fact exist. According to Bourdieu, the relevant notion of a public opinion rests on three tacit assumptions: First, that acquiring and producing an opinion is within easy and equal reach of every member of society. As soon as one takes into account imbalances of power and access to education and information, this presupposition becomes dubious. Political questions assume political competenc e, which varies greatly over different classes, or layers, of society. The question “are Jews completely innocent with respect to the emergence of antisemitism” is, on this background, even more problematic, because it does not even make it clear whether it is supposed to be a political question at all. After all, you could understand it as “did Jewish organizations during the Nazi regime take appropriate action so as to combat antisemitism?”, or as “are all Jews greedy, evil bastards, and is it consequently justifiable to be against them?” Which of these two interpretations of the question you adopt, or whether you adopt any of the possibly nuanced interpretations in between these two extremes, will depend on your education. And so will your answer. But how reliable are answers if questions are open to so great a variety of interpretations? Not to mention that the tone of such a question in itself (“not entirely innocent”) would leave an impression of antisemitism on the part of the one who asks with certain people, like myself, but might not with others.
Second, says Bourdieu, polls presuppose that all opinions are equal, that public opinion is but the sum of numerous individually held opinions – a poll, in other words, is thought of like a vote, with refusals to answer generally (though not, to be fair, in all polls) factored out so as to generate a neat picture. Let’s wait for the complete results to see how our antisemitism-poll fares in this respect.
Third, and most importantly, it is assumed that there is a consensus about problems, about what is to count as a problem, and about how precisely it is supposed to be a problem – polls, says Bourdieu, are problematic insofar as they force people to answer to a question that they would never have asked themselves, and insofar as they further pretend that people asked precisely this question all along. What sort of consensus about a problem is reflected, I wonder, in a question like “do you think that Jews are completely innocent with respect to the emergence of antisemitism?” It seems that people were not presented with the option to assert that antisemitism is a problem, and that Jews are not. It seems that they were not presented with the option to reject that antisemitism is a problem, in the sense that it doesn’t exist. It seems they were only left the premise to consider whether Jews are a problem. And that, in itself, is a serious problem of the poll – at least as far as it is published.
[Pierre Bourdieu: “L’ opinion publique n’existe pas”, Les temps modernes 318, 1973, pp.1292-1309; German translation: “Die öffentliche Meinung gibt es nicht”, in: “Soziologische Fragen”, Frankfurt am Main, edition suhrkamp, 1993.]

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