“Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ after 9/11


On the 21-23 September 2011, an international conference, “Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ after 9/11 – Reflections on Language, Culture and Literature in Times of Ideological Clashes”, took place in the University of Szczecin, Poland. It may be described as a conference with humanistic pursuits, sociolinguistic and applied literary in character.

This conference focuses on a continuous topic which may be summed up as, ‘Us and Them in Language, Literature and the World’. Its initial event was an international conference on the theme, “Us and Them – Them and Us: Constructions of the Other in Cultural Stereotypes”, which took place in the University of Szczecin in 2009 (reviewed on this website earlier). A volume of its papers under the title of the conference theme, edited by Anna Gonerko-Frej, Małgorzata Sokół, Joanna Witkowska and Uwe Zagratzki, was published by Shaker Verlag (Aachen, 2011) on the eve of this year’s conference.

This conference in 2011 attracted a moderate group of participants (45 papers on the programme) from Poland, Germany, USA, Canada, Austria, Romania, Lithuania and Hungary.

The papers presented may be grouped into those centred on interpretative literature, on linguo- and socio-political, and on sociolinguistic themes. The literary works or film discussed in the presentations were chosen either for their themes related to 9/11 (Sabine Ernst, Germany; Brygida Gasztold, Poland; Barbara Braid, Poland; Roxana Elena GhiJa, Romania; Karolina Golimowska, Germany, Katarzyna Jaworks-Biskup, Poland, Katarzyna Natalia Kondratowicz, Poland, Barbara Poważa-Kurko, Poland, Dorota Guttfeld, Poland, Malgorzata  Filipowska, Poland, and others) or for their technique in character representation, the image of ‘otherness’, exploitation of original topics or of themes of the literature of the nineteenth century in highlighting the shifting focus in social relations and in American values after 9/11. The focus on changes in character identity and in social relations kept these topics within the theme of the conference. There were also papers related to pedagogical questions approached from the angle of political issues.

Some papers focused on a biased use of the resources of rhetoric (Katarzyna Mołek Kazakowska, Poland) and on the exploitation of transposition effects (proximization theory) of distant events “to solicit legitimization” of current policies (Piotr Cap, Poland: Proximization theory: Issues of time). Professor Cap showed that “all aspects of proximization” work to narrow symbolically “the gap between “US” camp and the “THEM” camp” and represent the imminence of the threat from those placed in proximity either temporally or spatially. This is how the motivation of contemporary American policies was presented and made relevant to the citizen of today.

One paper significantly highlighted the use of religious rhetoric, through emphasis on a “monumental struggle of good versus evil”, in political speeches of George W.Bush (Kurt Műller, Germany/Poland), their irritating effect in Europe and the root of this tendency in “both Bush’s personal affiliation with the New Christian Right and the long standing tradition of apocalyptic millennialism in American intellectual history”. Another typically American theme was developed in the presentation of Michał Różycki, Poland, who discussed “American paranoid histories” or “conspiracy” theories and their contemporary currency in interpreting the causes of 9/11 or the activities of America’s arch enemies. This speaker questioned why “so many Americans chose to believe that their own government was behind this tragic event” and considered that “a fear of the “big” government, and a disillusionment with the reality of modern capitalism” were behind thus curiously fixed mentality.

Some papers were more narrowly sociopolitical and concrete in interpreting 9/11 and recent attacks in Europe, as well the threat from immigrants and governments’ policies toward the suspects, in media resources (Maureen T.Duffy, Canada, Closing Borders and Fear of the Other), while others, who resorted to philosophical interpretations through historical references, gave a more general treatment of the problem of the changed attitudes and social relations after 9/11 (John W.Davis, USA, The Four Freedoms: Effective Even Today). Mr Davis’s paper deserves attention because of its emphasis on the improvement of human relations through “mutual understanding”: while assuming that this is “the best means of combating terrorism” in the post 9/11 age. This speaker also implied the universality of the policy of “mutual understanding”. His reference was the “Four Freedoms” proposed by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from fear). The philosophical generality of these concepts and Mr Davis’s idea “to suggest concrete ways to achieve these freedoms for all in our world” gave an impression that the sense of this presentation generalized as the new policy of the USA.

The sociolinguistic theme featured in presentations on the concept of terrorist and its constituent senses in Urban Dictionary with their political associations (Adriana Goldman, Poland), on problems of political character in translation and interpreting (Paula Gorszczynska, Poland, Ewa Gumul, Poland, Monika Linke, Poland, and Tomasz Obiała, Poland), as well as on the resources of the English language in protecting the ‘other’ through correct formal grammar and conventional politeness (Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene, Lithuania).

Conferences in the University of Szczecin are distinguished by their human concerns, friendly atmosphere, tours of the city and the exceptionally fine Polish cuisine. This University refreshes a participant professionally and socially; visits there combine academic aura and the spirit of a good house.