Taking offence is not only Estonia’s problem

Mihhail Lotman. PHOTO: Tairo Lutter

Interview with Mikhail Lotman, who was elected Opinion Leader 2018 at the Postimees lunch of opinion leaders.

Q: Mr. Professor, how does it feel?

ML: I am surprised. I am not at all certain that the award went to the right person. I am no journalist. I am a dry and boring scholar.

Q: I asked about your emotions, because it seems that some sort of emotional uproar has conquered our public space this year. Can one say about emotions that they are right or wrong?

ML: Emotions can let you down, of course, but at that moment they are right. If I feel that a spider poses a threat to me – even a spider under the bed, which I cannot see – I fear it. Is that a wrong emotion?

I feel that it is dangerous. Even if there is no spider under the bed. With a slight exaggeration I would say that all emotions are wrong and right at the same time.

Q: What does it depend on? When can one say that your feeling is wrong if you are afraid of a nonexistent spider?

ML: Lat us rather take social emotions, for example. There exists a strong fear of migrants in Estonia. Is it right or wrong?

If such fear exists, then it is correct and should be considered. It is another matter that the level of migration in today’s Estonia is quite minute compared with the Soviet period. People did not fear migration then; rather they were afraid to fear. This is a much deeper fear, because a person did not admit to himself being afraid. Fears, feelings and emotions are very serious matters.

Q: You come from Tartu…

ML: I come from Tartu and Tallinn at the same time.

Q: A lot of fears have reached the public space in Tartu recently. Could these fears and feelings related to the possible construction of a cellulose plant be manipulated, could these fears be a mass psychosis to some extent? People say that they are afraid of stink, changes to their lifestyle etc.

ML: Yes, people are afraid of changes in their lifestyle. But as for the stink, the Tartu residents are most of all afraid of fraud. Let us presume that a study is carried out stating that the level of stench remains within accepted standards.

But actually, it would nevertheless mean a significant deterioration of the Tartu residents’ standards of living, since some people do not tolerate any stench and others are allergic to it. Such effects should be taken into consideration. I was one of the Tartu city council members who voted against the factory. And my opinion was a considered one.

I used to support the factory initially until I could see the documents. First I understood that it would not be safe and secondly that we are being deliberately influenced; I am not saying that cheated, but we are being manipulated.

Q: Possible manipulations, which provoke various feelings, make one doubt in specific emotions as well. Are manipulated emotions real?

ML: There is a lot of manipulation around us; every advertisement or commercial is so tome extent manipulation. Especially in Estonia and the EU where commercials compare some Ariel and an ordinary washing powder.

There is no ordinary washing powder. Such commercials could not be aired in the USA, because there you have to compare actual products and their comparable qualities.

That, of course, would be manipulation as well, but the compared qualities could be verified. An ordinary washing powder cannot be compared.

Q: But why does it seem that emotions are more and more talked about? What has happened, have the feelings been suppressed too much until now? Let us take that taking offence, which is already a matter of joke – that you just have to take offence of something every day?

ML: Taking offence is not only Estonia’s problem. Even Nietzsche wrote about it, he called it ressentiment or a need to feel offended. In his view that was a quality of a slave’s psychology: a free person has pride, but a slave has the freedom to feel offended.

I am not saying that the level of taking offence is too high in Estonia, Of course, one would like it to be lower, but unfortunately, anonymous comments on the Internet show that some people are actually seeking for issues to feel offended about.

I am monitoring Russian media and the level of being offended is not several times but orders of magnitude higher there. Compared with that the Estonian society is quite optimistic and healthy.

Q: What mostly offends people in the Russian media?

ML: Anything and anybody.  For example, being surrounded by Russophobes.

Q: Is this spontaneous in the Russian media or a product of propaganda?

ML: Of course, it has been produced and within less than 20 years. In the 1990s, roughly speaking, in Yeltsin’s era, we could see people in Russia suddenly beginning to smile.

The Soviet period was very grim there, but then you could see that happy people were living in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now it is no longer true. It seems that the Soviet period is back – people are grim, unhappy and deeply offended.

Q: Since there are many people in Estonia related to the Russian information space, do these issues transfer to our public information sphere without us noticing it?

ML: It is so to some extent, but the limit here is not purely technical. Many Estonians also live still in the Russian information sphere and trust it more that the English-language one.

Q: Has the number of Estonians in the Russian-language information sphere increased or had they so far simply remained out of sight?

ML: This is one of the consequences of the freedom of speech. When we allow the freedom of speech, we assume that now there will be only intelligent people.

But there are all kinds of people, including stupid, offended, angry ones, and they also have the right to express their feelings. Freedom of expression is not a privilege of only intelligent people. If it were so, people immediately would stop being so intelligent and principled.

As for the media space, it has two directions. On the one hand Russian propaganda, on the other hand the Western, especially American, so-called alternative media. These matters are not entirely independent of each other.

We can see how the Russian media reached the Western alternative media via the social media. These are not in principle one and the same, but synergistically they influence our people here.

It is interesting that some – I would not call then conspiracy theorists – believe that all others are brainwashed while he is a totally independent thinker. But what he considered independent thought is the same thing I can read in the Internet.

As a more refined Russian conspiracy theorist said: these self-styled independent thinkers reveal horrible secrets one could buy in a subway station for petty cash.

Q: How great is the danger that we could become so enchanted that we cease to understand what our real emotions are? And the masses will start moving and something terrible will happen?

ML: This threat is quite real. I am very much interested in what is happening in the world, but I am worried about Estonia. Not just because of populists or bad and stupid people, but also the arrogance of those in power. This is not good. This is dangerous.

Actually, this is not a very serious problem in Estonia, but take a loot at what is happening in other EU countries and the European Commission. When Jean Claude Juncker says that the UK failed with its referendum, it is correct in certain sense.

But the European Union failed even more badly. And this is because they cannot learn, unlike an artificial intelligence, which is constantly developing. These old political gurus and highly respected people live within some stereotypes 30-40 years old. And this is not good.


Jaak Jõerüüt, author, diplomat, politician, columnist of Postimees

Electing Mikhail Lotman the opinion leader was the right decision, I can say that wholeheartedly. As a contributor to Postimees and a longtime reader I inevitably thought about whom I would point out. And my finger would point at the same person, no doubt about it. Lotman is sharp, fine and original. There is a word for that – standard. One has to live up to the standard and he does.

Margit Sutrop, head of the University of Tartu ethics center

I am happy that Mikhail Lotman was elected the opinion leader of the year.  We work together at the university institute of philosophy and semiotics. I respect him highly. I think that he is a fine example of how an academician can constantly relay his message to the society, have influence and think along so that people take it into account. He has an ethical backbone, he is not influenced by any outside force, but thinks in-depth. I am happy for you!

Ilmar Raag, opinion leader of Postimees 2014

It is really curious that Mikhail Lotman has not earned the title earlier, although his brilliant thoughts have attracted attention all the time. One of his most interesting ideas dates to 2008, when he explained that anonymous comments are more or less as old as mankind, and, as he said at the ceremony, the standard of comments is not high, they ruin the discussion. Lotman is a curious figure. He is a member of the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union, but his texts are intellectual independent discussions rather than political communication, and I value that.