Just weeks before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Katharine Gun, a British intelligence official, leaked evidence that the public was being manipulated into war. She was quickly detained. Her interrogator from Special Branch confronted her about her actions, and said with a sneer: “You work for the British government.” Her famous response – recently portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film Official Secrets – was simple: “No. I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”
The exchange is telling of the English language, at least as it’s spoken and understood in the United Kingdom, where public employees generally see themselves as serving the public. This is not the case in my country, Serbia, where the law defines public sector workers as state servants, or in Serbian, državni službenici, which literally translates to “the one who serves the government.”
Compare this to how Merriam-Webster defines a public service worker: someone who renders services “in the public interest.”
The Serbian word for government is vlada, which comes from the Slavic word for “the one that rules.” Biographies of public officials, consequently, do not state that they “served” as mayor, minister, or member of parliament. Instead, the officials were “in power.”
There is meaning in language, and these nuances in my country are magnified in the lived experiences of my fellow Serbians.
Since the Second World War and the creation of the Yugoslav Republic in 1946. the word “citizen” has been nearly removed from legal acts in Serbia. Our post-war constitution changed the purpose of the government by referring to it as the ruler and replacing “citizens” with the term lice, which literally translates to “face.” Likewise, Balkan countries used to use the term “Council of Ministers” as the formal name for the government. Council of ministers, (savet ministara,) was replaced with vlada, the word still used today in all former Yugoslav republics. By using impersonal terms, the state forcefully separates itself from the people. This alienation compromises the very essence of our democracy – defined by ancient Greeks as “rule by the people.”
Another illustrative example of language phenomena is that of salaries in the Balkans, which are presented in net values, while product prices are in gross values. As a result, citizens are typically unconscious of the fact that they are taxpayers and that the money government is spending is in fact theirs. Both media and members of the Government regularly exploit the phrase državni novac, or state money.” This in turn emphasizes the power of the state and diminishes the role of citizens.
Although the term poreski obveznik, or taxpayer, exists in media reports and in legislation, it’s almost exclusively used in one way — to designate those in debt to the government. Rarely is there a sense that the government is in debt to the people for taking a cut of our income and purchases.
“How can I be angry over taxes, when I’m not a taxpayer?!?,” a friend asked me after hearing me complain about this.
My daughter, who is ten, provided a helpful interpretation. Recently, while helping her with her homework in Vancouver, Canada, where we now live, I spoke with her about politics in Canada and in Serbia. Trying to understand, but looking for a simpler explanation, she said:
“Oh, so you’re saying that Serbian politicians are like those buses that run on the street not picking up any passengers, by putting up the sign ‘Not in service’!”
Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that in Serbia, democracy is more of a goal than an achievement. Officially, almost all politicians call for further democratic development. However, from my perspective, democracy should be considered as a way to achieve rule of law, human rights, independent media, or, at the very least, as a foundation for these things.
On the surface, it seems that democracy is threatened by nationalism, populism, and different forms of corruption by a handful of political parties. But, in fact, all of these are consequences of a more serious problem— lack of civil literacy, which leads to a poor perception of democracy and its mechanisms.
For this reason it’s important to understand that the role of media is not just to inform, but to educate— not just to provide precise and complete information, but to provide context and use the right words to describe it.
It’s not easy to change a political or educational system. It’s even harder to change people’s mentalities. But to start, let’s use the right words.