The Virus of Disrespect: What the Pandemic Says about Public Debate in Poland

Corona Diary
Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak

In the early stages of the coronavirus lockdown, the Polish liberal media was convinced that the pandemic would inevitably alter the national public debate. It was expected to change the post-1989 social system, which had ossified due to growing income inequality and political polarization over the last decade. The pandemic was also portrayed as a political tipping point, because the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 was the first experience of a pandemic in most Poles’ lives. Previous coronaviruses had bypassed Poland, so the last epidemic was a local fight against smallpox in Wrocław in the summer of 1963 that is remembered only by the older generation.

In March, journalists called for solidarity not only with the nearly 20 percent of Poland’s population who are over 65, since the elderly are particularly prone to contracting COVID-19, but also with owners of microenterprises for whom the prolonged lockdown would spell bankruptcy. They also predicted that, faced with such a great risk to both their lives and their standard of living, Poles would abandon class egoisms and be willing to bear responsibility for the well-being of society as a whole. Some commentators, however, struck an apocalyptic tone: “The coronavirus has set in motion processes that may lead to the final disintegration of social cohesion in the Polish community… We are about to face a war of all against all,” wrote Ignacy Dutkiewicz in the largest left-wing liberal daily paper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza.

The right-wing media was more moderate in its assessment of the impact of the coronavirus. Instead of predicting a shift towards anomie or towards empathetic cooperation among all Poles, they focused instead on affirming the policies adopted by the government to fight the coronavirus. They proved to be partially right: the virus has not led to a radical restructuring of Polish public debate or to a correction of its axiological bases. This does not mean, however, that it has not shifted the focus of the political discourse. The COVID crisis has shown how little overlap there is between social practice and the self-images held and cherished by the Polish people and the elites. It is not a question of the new plague of post-truth, an overused notion that has lost its heuristic value. Rather, the problem is a dismantling of the foundations of liberal democracy as described, for instance, by Michael Patrick Lynch in True to Life: Why Truth Matters: namely, an erosion of the assumption that there is usually a difference between what the majority believes and what really is the case; that truth is not an attribute of the majority, and that the community does not possess the gift of infallibility, especially when there is no certainty that such a community exists at all.

Analyzing Polish public debate in times of COVID-19, one gleans several important lessons. First, the pandemic has exposed the spurious and rhetorical character of the myths of the past, with their references to national martyrdom and their romantic and eschatological symbolism. Many Polish and foreign researchers, have treated these myths as one of the foundations of Polish culture, and PiS has effectively harnessed them as moral support for its neo-authoritarian model of power. But amidst COVID-19, the heroic and thanatocentric image of Polish culture has been nowhere to be found, neither in political and social discourse nor in public action. On the contrary, it turned out that hardly no one wanted to be a hero who would, no matter the cost, protect the lives of the groups most at risk. The doctors and nurses caring for infected faced a wave of public hatred. Left-wing and liberal journalists floated the idea of forcibly isolating senior citizens and otherwise ending the lockdown for the sake of saving the economy. Instead, the government declared that it wished to protect its senior citizens better than Sweden or the United Kingdom was doing, while at the same time abolishing restrictions for economic and political reasons even before the virus had reached its peak. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki encouraged elderly voters not to fear the virus and to flock to the polling booths to choose the president in the July election. Almost all social actors gave up on the issue of effective help for nursing home residents. To Europe, Yes, but Together with Our Dead (Do Europy tak, ale razem z naszymi umarłymi) was the title literary scholar Maria Janion, who died on 23 August 2020, gave to her well-known book published in 2000. She claimed that the romantic and Catholic symbolism still ruled in Polish culture and public sphere, and organized implicitly the political and intellectual agenda in Poland. The so-called “myth-eaters” (a term coined by cultural anthropologist Dariusz Czaja), who saw in the national mythology evidence of Polish backwardness, can today declare that Janion’s claim has been falsified. In the shadow of the COVID crisis Poles proved to be rather pragmatic and self-oriented than romantic and tradition-oriented. But there is no cause for celebration.

Myths seem to have been replaced by disrespect for everything: people, politicians, the elites, law, and truth. This tendency is as democratic as the virus itself: it can infect anyone, both those who support the political right and its conservatism on xenophobic grounds, and those defenders of progress who despise the people. Besides the public media, which is a mouthpiece of PiS, the biggest contribution to spreading the virus of disrespect has been made by the digital public sphere. Alek Tarkowski, a sociologist of the Internet, claims that the lockdown turned Poles into an online society at an accelerated pace. While this may be true, it is hard to agree with his optimistic assessment that online debate has community-building potential. The internet has for many years been an arena of “negative solidarity”, to use Pankaj Mishra’s term following Hannah Arendt. The main political motivation for participants in online debate is dislike for others; an articulated need to change one’s situation is subordinate. One indication of this tendency is the unsophisticated slogan “fuck PiS” (“jebać PiS,” written in a “printable” version as a sequence of asterisks corresponding to the number of letters in the slogan) popularized during the presidential campaign by the well-known rapper Taco Hemingway.

This vulgar anti-government slogan is, however, a mere trifle in comparison to the scandalous nature of the organized discursive attack on non-heteronormative persons. The two months of the presidential campaign were marked by the right-wing fuelling society’s phobias over so-called “LGBT ideology.” The term is an empty signifier that collates all prejudice connected to progressive cultural change; it enables the right-wing electorate to discount foreign commentators’s criticism of the actions of the Polish government. It is also an immoral argument in the context of the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church in Poland that have been regularly exposed. Right-wing authors argue that pedophilia is strictly connected with homosexuality and that the priests responsible for instances of child sexual abuse, and for covering them up, were all gay. Rainbow movements have replaced the Jews and refugees as Polish conservative modernization’s ersatz enemy. Duda’s campaign did still use anti-Jewish motifs for PiS’s so-called die-hard base, but this time they were not at the center of the narrative about the demonic Other.

Liberals do not have clean hands either. They speak out against homophobia only in its most radical forms, like, for example, local government regulations in municipalities governed by PiS creating “zones free from LGBT ideology.” When, in February 2019, Trzaskowski, then mayor of Warsaw, signed a declaration embracing some of the policies called for by the LGBTQ+ community, including the introduction of anti-discriminatory education and sexual education in keeping with WHO standards in the capital city’s schools, his fellow party members’s applause was muted. Reducing issues of equality to somebody else’s problem, i.e. an issue which is unimportant, artificially inflated or marginal from the point of view of those who profess such opinions, is the original sin of democratic Poland’s liberal public discourse.

It is ironic that Trzaskowski has been positioned by PiS as the main “LGBT ideologue.” He has distanced himself from labeling the voice of sexual minorities an ideology, but he is not their steadfast ally. In the final run up to the campaign, President Duda signed a draft constitutional amendment introducing a ban on adopting children by same-sex couples, and Trzaskowski hastened to declare that he did not believe in a universal right to adoption either. Real people once again lost out to Realpolitik. For many liberals, calling someone from their circle a spokesperson for LGBTQ+ people is treated like a “mug” (a term derived from Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke, referring to a social label based on stereotypes and prejudices) stuck to them by their “intellectually limited” opponents. The question of a non-heterosexual person’s rights is still treated like a distraction, which in itself should be considered as a sign of homophobia.

The proliferation of homophobic content in the public debate is also the work of an alliance between the authorities and some leading figures within the Catholic Church in Poland. Interestingly, this recent wave of homophobia coincided with the release of a Polish translation of Michel Foucault’s last book Confessions of the Flesh, the fourth part of his History of Sexuality, published for the first time in France in 2018. This intellectual reckoning with Early Christian discourse, in which the denial of the richness of human sexuality served as a test for being a ‘good’ Christian, struck a chord in contemporary Poland. After reading Confessions of the Flesh it is hard not to think that Polish Christian culture, an overzealous student of the Roman tradition, sacrificed sex for the sake of doctrinaire and politically-motivated discourse, which has made conspiracy theories about homosexuals lying in wait for children or feminists promoting divorce and abortion popular.

Over half of the Polish population does not share the prejudicial narrative promoted by the ruling party. Yet one should remember that Andrzej Duda was reelected not thanks to the phantasm of “Poland as the Christ of Nations”, or fear of the alleged “LGBT ideology,” but because the model of “transformational promise” based on meritocracy, which has turned out to be an accelerator of social inequality (as sociologist Andrzej Rychard argues), had worn out its welcome. The legitimacy of Duda’s mandate stems also from the fact that his opponents collectively decided to participate in the presidential election, despite the controversial circumstances under which it was held. In the second round 10 million votes were cast for Trzaskowski. But the whole process was far from straightforward. According to the electoral calendar published before the pandemic began, the first round was supposed to take place on May 10. Even though it was already clear in March that this date was unrealistic, Jarosław Kaczyński insisted on it, rightly assuming that postponing the election, so that it would be held as the country grappled with the economic and other consequences of the pandemic, would diminish Duda’s reelection chances. The governing party wanted to push an ad hoc plan of universal postal voting through unconstitutionally. Some within the opposition and many Poles declared that they would boycott such an election. PiS was saved from complete humiliation by its coalition partner, a small party called Agreement (Porozumienie), whose leader Jarosław Gowin, thanks to backstage negotiations with Kaczyński and the opposition, got the election moved to June 28 and July 12, keeping postal voting as an option. The Civic Coalition’s candidate at the time, uncharismatic Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska (the only woman in the race), dropped out, and the party had less than a week to replace their candidate with Trzaskowski and collect 100,000 signatures in support of his registration. The energetic mayor of Warsaw obtained 1.6 million signatures for his candidacy within just a few days. PiS’s opponents saw a glimmer of hope.

The new date for the election was still legally questionable, and it soon became clear that there would be no guarantee that the candidates would have equal chances and that there would be universal access to voting. Nonetheless, 10 million Poles decided to participate in an unconstitutional election in order to express their objection to the unconstitutionality of many of PiS’s actions. Even judges persecuted by PiS and the Commissioner for Human Rights encouraged people to vote. Pragmatically, not romantically, almost half of voters assumed that giving license to this election was the only way to take complete power away from PiS. In the wake of Trzaskowski’s defeat, they must face the sociological law known as the Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Of course, one should not be deluded into believing that boycotting the election would have been a constructive solution. Yet now almost half of voters have to accept Duda’s victory and, ipso facto, take responsibility for their decision to participate in the election.

This is also the segment of society on which any potential pro-egalitarian revision of Polish public debate depends. What has been said during this campaign cannot be taken back. Homophobic discourse is now omnipresent, and there is no way to eliminate it. Trying to improve the situation would be like attempting to unscramble an egg. The president-elect and his adult daughter, who works in London and took the floor on election night, made incredible belated attempts to walk this discourse back. And yet, it is only by constantly voicing our opposition to efforts to demonize non-heterosexual and transgender persons that we can we outtalk those who see sexuality as a whip for other peoples’ souls. This is a task not only for the cultural left, but also for the moderate center. Over 40 universities and academic associations in Poland have issued declarations condemning the homophobic utterances coming from the right wing and the Catholic Church. As Polish universities elect their governing bodies for the 2020-2024 term, many candidates for the position of Rector have declared that they would implement non-discrimination policies. It is unlikely, however, that “enlightened” university discourse could be an avant-garde of change for society as a whole as Polish public debate grows ever more anti-intellectual.

If universities are not a vehicle for change, then perhaps their rebellious students could be? At the beginning of August, a non-binary activist Margot was arrested in Warsaw, charged with demolishing a truck with homophobic slogans and abusing the driver. During Margot’s arrest, many young Poles, and intellectuals, expressed their solidarity with her and put pressure on the authorities to release her (what finally happened on August 28). Philosopher and public intellectual Tomasz Markiewka suggests in his book Anger (Gniew), published during the lockdown (inspired by, among others, Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistics), that not only the students but the disillusioned half of society should join the fight being waged by feminists and sexual and gender minorities, since both these groups offer a language of real change. Cooperation between the moderate center and radical enclaves would require positive solidarity from both sides. That is, they would have to accept that fighting for someone else’s rights will not necessarily lead to rights being taken away from groups that differ socially and politically (e.g. Catholics or nationalists). Poles experienced this sort of solidarity in the 1980s, but today the egoisms and particularisms that compete with it loom larger than under the ancien régime. And if autumn brings a second wave of COVID-19 infections, solidarity transcending class and political divisions will be the coronavirus’s primary victim. This will not be good news for anyone, even for Andrzej Duda, hiding within the walls of the Presidential Palace.

Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Łódź. From October 2014 to July 2015 she was a Bronisław Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.