Are Czechs making the most of free speech?

25-07-2005

It is over 15 years since the Communist regime collapsed in this country. Despite the fact that this repressive system, which controlled all public debate and routinely suppressed any dissent, is now long gone, there has been no great upsurge in Czech rhetoric in the intervening years. Whilst public and political discourse in mature democracies is regularly peppered with lively and eloquent debate, Czech society is still often permeated with the awkward, stilted speeches of its politicians and public figures.

Alena Horakova, who runs the AHA public relations company, admits that the speech-making abilities of many Czech politicians and public figures leaves a lot to be desired, but that there are a number of deep-rooted historical reasons for this situation:

"In comparison with western countries, Czechs have bigger problems with public speaking. They lack experience with it and they don't have any role models to emulate. It's also connected to the political situation that existed here before 1989 because of course independent thinking and public speaking were not supported in this country. Rhetoric was something we only knew about from history."

The Czech style of education, which until recently was firmly based on learning by rote, has often done little to encourage the development of Czech rhetoric. According to Ms Horakova, pupils were usually given no support when it came to cultivating and nurturing public-speaking and debating skills.

"Our education system didn't give students the opportunity to train or develop their rhetorical abilities, unlike in Britain, for example, where pupils in primary and secondary schools have the possibility of engaging in discussions and competing in debates, etc. That's definitely a handicap, which has left us in a position where we're now trying to catch-up."

However, despite lagging behind many mature democracies in terms of the quality of its public discourse, Horakova feels that things have been improving slowly here since Czech society opened up after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

"The situation is definitely getting better. A lot has undoubtedly changed. Since the 1990s public-speaking and debating clubs have been established. Rhetoric is now taught in schools, and people are now aware of the need to be good speakers. The situation has also changed since the 1990s in that people can travel freely abroad, where they experience public speaking and can also follow the example of their foreign colleagues."

Although political speeches and debates in Czech society today are a far cry from the style of discourse that prevailed in the dreary days of communism, Alena Horakova feels that there is still a lot of room for improvement:

"Every way you look at it, definite progress has been made, but on the other hand we can see how lots of professionals still lack basic public-speaking skills. Our politicians often speak without really saying anything; their speeches don't really have any point to them and they don't sparkle with life. You can even see this in the media. For example, radio and television presenters and announcers often speak bad Czech. They employ expressions that are fashionable but incorrect in terms of the language used."

In response to this situation, Alena Horakova's public relations company has been running popular courses in public-speaking and rhetoric for a number of years now. One of the course instructors is the voice coach Jirina Hurkova. She says it's still very common for the people she teaches to have absolutely no idea as to how to properly present themselves and their ideas to an audience:

Czech Debate Clubs' AssociationCzech Debate Clubs' Association "I think you can still always see a certain amount of insecurity inside them. Most specialists and professionals have absolutely no training in this area. I provide training sessions for young professionals and you can see that they are unsure of themselves, even among people who have a very high level of expertise in their field. For example, they know almost nothing about non-verbal communication."

The reticence that many Czechs display when it comes to putting across their views in public is something that Tom Mertin of the Czech Debate Clubs' Association is also aware of. He feels that the somewhat stilted, academic style that Czechs regularly adopt when they are discussing serious issues is partly responsible:

"I definitely think style would be very different. Here [in the Czech Republic] we overvalue content. I think Czechs in general are very deep when it comes to content. Usually what they say is very well thought out, but sometimes they don't elaborate on how they say things. And I think that that's something we should improve."

The Debate Clubs' Association was set up by the Prague Open Society Fund in the mid-1990s and has been growing rapidly ever since. Tom Mertin says that there are very clear objectives in terms of what this debating organization can help achieve:

"It can promote debate. That means to promote critical thinking and the ability to argue. It also means being able to listen to what the other side has to say. and being able to oppose ideas and articulate views. It helps create attitudes towards various issues. I think this is necessary in any society because if you are not able to critically analyse any plan or idea, then you're destined to do very poorly."

As part of his work with the Debate Clubs Association, Tom Mertin coached the Czech team at last year's World Debating Championships, where they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the final rounds, a vast improvement on previous appearances at the event.

Buoyed by this success, Mertin hopes the association will continue cultivating debating and rhetorical skills among young Czechs. He believes it can help ensure that a new generation emerges which is equipped to grapple constructively with the challenges facing what is still a transitional society:

"With respect to Czech society, I think it is very useful. The word democracy is very nice but what does it really mean? I feel it is very necessary to have opposition for democracy. And debate teaches people how to do constructive opposition, which doesn't undermine the system, but makes it better."

For more information on the Czech Debate Clubs' Association, you can visit their English-language webpage at http://adk.debating.net/Eadk.html.

25-07-2005