Unia encourages intercultural awareness in folklore traditions

4 November 2019
Area of action: Society
Grounds of discrimination: Racism

Unia is calling for a more inclusive image for folkloric events and intangible heritage such as carnival. Local organisers and partners can play an important role in this. That is one of Unia’s recommendations in a report drawn up following the controversy about the anti-Semitic float in Aalst.

UNESCO will be among the recipients of the new report, which contains an analysis of the relevant laws and historical background on carnival festivities. "But this report is more than a legal analysis. After all, we do not want to shy away from a broader discussion: how can we make a place for long-standing folk customs in today’s super-diverse society? If we can find a way to do this, we can have popular festivities in which everybody is included", says Unia director Els Keytsman.

Dialogue is a start

In this sense, Unia feels that dialogue and awareness must be a priority. "What is offensive to one person is apparently folklore for another. Showing consideration for other people's sensitivities can never be simply imposed by law. Only through dialogue can we take into account the feelings of others and learn to see things from their point of view. "

That is why Unia organised meetings between Belgium’s Forum of Jewish Organisations and a group of Aalst carnivalists. "Their float – depicting anti-Semitic stereotypes – was unintentionally reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. We understand that many people were shocked by this connotation, and it led to a highly polarised conflict. We have seen that both parties now have an understanding of each other's position and context. Talking to each other does not guarantee that stereotypes will never crop up again, but it is a start."

"For carnivalists, freedom of expression means the freedom to make fun of anything and anyone. Conversely, that freedom also means that you are bound to provoke controversy now and then, and you have to be able to deal with criticism. "

At the same time, Unia is concerned about the tone of the reactions to the carnival controversy. "Even unintentionally offensive caricatures should never give rise to threats. The extremely heated reactions that the carnival group received from all over the world had a severe impact on them", Keytsman reports.

Schools and clubs also have a role to play in making parades or popular festivals more inclusive. "They can actively examine stereotyped ideas and how these lead to prejudices, which can in turn lead to discrimination." Local governments can mount campaigns to encourage the organisers of popular festivals to take everyone's point of view into account.

Changing times

Thanks to social media, images of parades and festivities are reaching the general public on an unprecedented scale and are thus amplified and sometimes taken out of context. Moreover, while in the past, traditions were not called into question, this questioning has now become appropriate, Unia notes. "As such, that is a positive thing. Folkloristic events can evolve according to changing attitudes and new insights, allowing them to become celebrations in which no one is left out", according to Keytsman.

Unia also received reports from people who were upset by other carnivalists in Aalst or other folkloric parades such as those in Lessines or Ath. "But just like in Aalst, technically, everything remained within the law."

What does the law say?

The Unia report also outlines the legal context. "We checked the reports against the relevant legislation. In our opinion – certainly within the highly specific context of carnival – there has been no conscious incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence against Jews. Nor were racist ideas intentionally disseminated and it is not a matter of deliberately insulting individuals. In addition, it is clear that the carnivalists did not violate the Negationism Act. The float did not refer to Nazism or the Holocaust", according to the conclusion of the legal analysis in the report.

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