Political polarization Ghent linguistic landscape protest from the left

Political polarization in Ghent: a "radical" linguistic landscape

32 minutes to read
Claudia Gerards

This article presents an in-depth analysis of the linguistic landscape of the Belgian city of Ghent. Specifically, it analyzes how the city’s linguistic landscape has changed in the period from winter 2018 through fall 2019. During this time period, Flanders has dealt with multiple elections, growing support of right-wing parties, multiple extreme-right movements, and overall political radicalization. This has resulted in the left and the right becoming more and more irreconcilable.

A large event that contributed to Flanders’ political polarization was the entering of Dries van Langenhove in the country’s national parliament early 2019. Dries, who is the frontman of New Right youth movement Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends), has since been putting his extreme right-wing ideologies into practice, which has led to all kinds of counter noise appearing in the linguistic landscape of Flanders’ largest cities. This article therefore aims to analyze how the linguistic landscape of Ghent, a city whose residents are relatively left-wing compared to those of other Belgian regions, has changed during a period in which right-wing policies started taking over the country’s rule.

The enormous impact of political change

Politics can be messy. Sometimes, people form a truly coherent mass which values similar things and adheres to comparable norms (e.g. love thy neighbor as thyself). However, most of the time (and especially in contemporary politics), people form a fragmented, dispersed, chaotic, and diverse mass, which represents many different voices, some of them absolutely incompatible with others (Maly, 2018). Different people stand for different things, but all people retain the right to express their position by voting for certain political parties or even by participating in certain kinds of activism. At least, that is the whole point of democracy.

Sometimes, a country’s general political composition (and the set of norms which comes attached to it) does not really seem to change, not for centuries even. This is also why, in most Western European countries, as Barthes has jokingly stressed, we have not seen any political parties presenting themselves as “middle class” or “bourgeoisie parties” for quite some time already: it is default or deemed normal to stand up for the middle class. This ideology is not questioned anymore. Almost all political parties have simply and silently incorporated it into their position several decades ago (Sternhell, 2008). From this perspective, politics can appear as relatively stable and unchanging.

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, politics has recently been rather messy and extreme.

From our own experiences, however, we must admit that political compositions are usually not stable, but very dynamic. Policies are ever-changing and may go in many different directions. These changes tend to have much more impact on citizens’ everyday lives. Moreover, they are much more noticeable than those hegemonies which seem to be almost constant. 

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, politics has recently been rather messy and extreme. Political conflict and disunity are not something new in Belgium: Flanders has dealt with tensions between far-left and New Right parties/movements for many years, including their (online) activism (which has also become increasingly more extreme). Most people in Flanders tend to adhere to right-wing ideologies, but opposing voices from the far-left are not uncommon either, especially not in large cities. As is oftentimes the case, these larger cities (e.g. Antwerp, Ghent) tend to be “more leftist” than smaller cities and other regions, though in Flanders, even the largest cities predominantly vote for right-wing parties.

Before we analyze (the use of) political language in the public sphere of the city of Ghent, a description of the data and our ethnographic approach to linguistic landscaping will be given. In order to provide some insight into Flanders’ current political situation, the history and development of political polarization in Flanders will be discussed in more detail later as well. Throughout the paper, the focus will be on the metapolitical battle between far- or extreme-right parties/movements (mainly the N-VA, Vlaams Belang, and Schild en Vrienden) and left-wing counter noise that appears in Ghent’s linguistic landscape during the period of winter 2018 to fall 2019.

Our pictures and our ethnographic approach

We have opted for an ethnographic linguistic landscaping approach (ELLA), meaning that (1) we analyze naturalistic data and (2) we try to view political signs from the perspectives of those actually involved in them. The dataset therefore consists of first-hand pictures of political signs in Ghent’s linguistic landscape, coming from various public spaces. All pictures were taken by the researchers themselves unless indicated otherwise. Analyzing them as ethnographic data entails analyzing the political discourses that are displayed in them in their original historical context (Maly, 2019). We must understand that these discourses have a history of use and abuse which sticks to them, and that “this intertextual connection between different texts is a key analytical tool” (Blommaert, as cited in Maly, 2019, p. 4).

Discourses have a history of use and abuse which sticks to them.

Because the pictures were taken at different points in time, they all contain an exact description of where and when they were taken. Broadly speaking, they were taken between december 2018 (pre-elections) and november 2019 (post-elections). The picture of the large art panel/mural made by artist Mundano in the city center was taken in december 2018. Others were taken later, also in the city center of Ghent, in the area between Ghent’s cultural center and its university.

Figure 1: The area in which all pictures were taken: from Ghent Dampoort all the way to Ghent Muide.

The data will be analyzed in terms of three arrows: backwards, forward, and sideways (Blommaert & Maly, 2016). The former pertains to where signs came from (i.e. the past of the signs) and looks at those who made the political signs and discourses (e.g. artist Mundano). The forward arrow involves the signs’ audiences, who they are, and how or why they understand the political signs in certain ways. It concerns the future of the signs and discourses, that is. The last arrow indexes the emplacement of political signs among other signs or discourses.

In order to fully grasp the true meaning of (the change of) the political signs that (dis)appear in Ghent’s linguistic landscape, we will situate this analysis into a larger framework that concerns national political changes and happenings in Flanders (e.g. elections, the birth of new governments). By revealing an interpretative relationship between the linguistic and contextual analyses (i.e. the three arrows) and a political analysis, we hope to find out whether the two may have influenced each other systematically, and most importantly: how?

The question this article aims to answer is, therefore, whether (the use of) political language in the public sphere of Ghent has changed during the period of winter 2018 to fall 2019. If so, in which direction? Did it become more left-wing, right-wing, generally more radical, or did something different occur?

A brief history of Flemish right-wing politics

A better understanding of Flanders’ political history might provide us with more insight into its cities' current linguistic landscapes and all their activist movements. After all, the current events in Flanders are caused by long-existing historical and ideological movements, the origins of which we simply cannot ignore.

Flemish nationalism has typically been associated with an extreme-right nationalist party called Vlaams Blok/Belang (Flemish Block/Interest), which underwent a “rather spectacular electoral rise” in the 1990s (Maly, 2016, p. 266). Vlaams Blok/Belang was known to advocate rather racist discourses (e.g. by openly striving for a “white Europe”) and its members have been convicted for spreading these hateful messages a number of times. Nevertheless, it eventually managed to collect almost a fourth of all Flemish votes.

In Flanders, many political parties are radically right-wing, populist, and/or nationalist. These parties tend to capitalize on people who are afraid of globalization by explicitly presenting themselves as protectors of “the people” against "threats" like immigration. Vlaams Blok/Belang specifically did this by using radical anti‐immigration and anti‐Islam discourse. The party got labelled as an antidemocratic, racist, nationalist party that propagated “closed ethnic nationalism” (Maly, 2016, p. 266), even by the relatively right-wing Flemish government at that time.

The electoral success of Vlaams Blok/Belang slowly came to an end, especially after a new nationalist party, called N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), entered Flanders’ political stage. The N-VA cunningly presented itself as a conservative, moderate right-wing Flemish nationalist party and took over the majority of Vlaams Blok/Belang’s electorate. As is tradition with New Right politics, this take-over required a careful “restructuring” of Flemish nationalist discourse. Within the topic of immigration, for example, the definition of what it meant to be “anti-immigration” (which concerns people’s identity) was altered. And with success.

In the elections of 2014, the NV-A managed to get over 30% of the votes (and parliamentary seats). The N-VA became the largest party in Belgium and it was labeled as a moderately right-wing mainstream party (which is debatable given the fact that its positions can be radical at times).

New Right movements and activism

The study of contemporary Flemish activism and the New Right in general can be brought back to a school of thought called "La Nouvelle Droite". Metapolitics, as envisioned by this school, was focused first and foremost on giving the extreme- and far-right an “intellectual foundation” (Maly, 2019, p. 6). In the 21st century, people and the alt-right in general were extremely influenced by this kind of metapolitics: all over the world, New Right activists started to adopt this strategy. They started setting up publishing houses and invested in websites which were dedicated to intellectually grounding New Right discourse.

This “global renaissance of New Right movements and their metapolitical strategies” (Maly, 2019, p. 6) quickly changed, and activists began to use different strategies. The renewal of New Right activism in Europe resulted in many identitarian or anti-Enlightenment movements across the continent. These do not only tap into people’s feelings of anxiety and alienation (supposedly caused by digitalization, globalization, superdiversity, etc.), but also set up new forms of activism. Especially by digitally remediatizing offline activism, activists try to attract younger segments of the population. They aim to integrate, normalize, and popularize their ideological ideas in mainstream (online) media and try to reach a broader audience (Maly, 2019).

Schild en Vrienden

In Flanders, there are several extreme-right identitarian or anti-Enlightenment movements. The largest and most well-known of them is Schild en Vrienden (Shield & Friends), leader of which is Dries van Langehoven. Schild en Vrienden is a very conservative, nationalist New Right youth movement, and you could say it overall consists of a rather white and masculine group of people. Last September, Dries van Langehove and his group were accused of running anti-Semitic and racist online chatrooms on Facebook and other gaming apps, flirting with neo-Nazi ideology and memes linked to the U.S. alt-right movement (e.g. Pepe the Frog).

Figure 2: New Right youth movement Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends) with leader Dries van Langenhove on the right. The text on the banner says: “secure borders, secure future.'' 

Schild en Vrienden applies global New Right elements within local Flemish nationalism. For example, a key demand is that only Flemish should be spoken Flanders. In the movement’s largest and most well-known action, Flemish patriots from Schild en Vrienden tore down the massive EU flags from a historic castle in Ghent at an "open borders" event. They replaced the flags with banners that said: “secure borders, secure future”, leaving leftists in horror.

On March 3, 2018, the movement organized an intervention with civil society organizations at the Gravensteen Castle in the city of Ghent (Maly, 2019), which were protesting against inhuman European migration policies. Schild en Vrienden showed up with about twenty-five activists who pulled down the European flag hanging on the castle’s walls and filmed the whole event. Reach on social media was used as proof that they really were articulating the voice of a new Flemish generation and their conscience about their heritage.

The period of winter 2018 to fall 2019 was chosen for this study because Dries van Langehoven became the federal leader and main candidate for his party Vlaams Belang during the elections in early 2019. The man has since been conducting his radical right-wing political activism in the federal parliament too, with all sorts of consequences, some of them visible in the country’s linguistic landscape. For example, all over the city center of Ghent, both left-wing and right-wing activists have left political messages on walls, benches, etc.

Like most contemporary New Right movements, Schild en Vrienden draws ideological inspiration from La Nouvelle Droite, which pertains to a long-existing and persistent anti-Enlightenment sentiment.

So, like most contemporary New Right movements, Schild en Vrienden draws ideological inspiration from La Nouvelle Droite, which pertains to a long-existing and persistent anti-Enlightenment sentiment (long durée). Following this school of thought, the movement focuses on circulating and normalizing their ideas and definitions (e.g. of what it means to be a feminist). This is ultimately aimed at making their ideas hegemonic in society (moyen durée). Not only digital media, but also the public sphere has proven itself to be useful for this metapolitical battle, enabling activists to gain discursive power. Topics which are of current interest (courte durée) are feminism, Islam, immigration, superdiversity, democracy, digitalization, and globalization.


In early 2019, three kinds of elections were held in Belgium: federal, regional, and elections for the European parliament. Schild en Vrienden managed to use in their favor the spotlight they were given because of the allegations against them. They managed to make Dries van Langenhove a candidate for one of the largest political parties in Flanders, namely the extreme-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). Being in the parliament meant he could also no longer get sued. 

Their victory in the triple elections on Sunday, May 26 was unreal. Together with the N-VA, which remained the largest Flemish party with 24.8% of the votes, they became the largest two parties in Flanders. Vlaams Belang scored more than 18.6% of the vote. It was on this day, which Belgians traditionally refer to as Black Sunday, that Flemish Interest became once again a powerful force in the political landscape of Belgium. While voters in French-speaking Wallonia gave leftist parties a clear win, the elections were marked by a distinct shift to the extreme-right in Dutch-speaking Flanders. However, if we look at the maps below, we can see that some constituencies in Flanders, such as Ghent, remained relatively leftist even in last year’s elections.

Figure 3: The outcome of the European parliamentary elections, which illustrates the discrepancy between voting behavior of Flemings and Wallonians (May 26, 2019).

Figure 4: The outcome of the Flemish parliamentary elections in the whole of Flanders (May 26, 2019).

Looking at Figure 3, we can clearly see the discrepancy between the voting behavior of Flemings and Wallonians: there is an obvious horizontal line which divides Belgium. The Flemish typically voted for more right-wing and/or liberal parties, such as the N-VA (light orange), Vlaams Belang (greenish yellow), and the liberal party Open VLD (cobalt blue). The Wallonians, in turn, voted for parties that are more socialist and/or environmentalist, such as Parti Socialiste (red) and ECOLO (green). The center-right party Mouvement Réformateur (light blue) also did well in Wallonia. As can be seen in Figure 4, the N-VA and Vlaams Belang amply won the Flemish parliamentary elections. 

Figure 5: The outcome of the Flemish parliamentary elections in the municipality of Ghent, which illustrates the discrepancy between voting behavior of those living in Ghent and those living in adjacent constituencies (May 26, 2019).

Remarkably, the municipality of Ghent was one of the only constituencies (and definitely the largest) which voted predominantly for the progressive environmentalist party called Groen (Green); see also Figure 5. Groen is the “sister party” of the Wallonian party ECOLO, which is also why we see no Wallonian constituencies preferring Groen over ECOLO. Either way, Ghent definitely stands out as it is fully enclosed by “less green” constituencies, which voted for right-wing parties (i.e. Vlaams Belang and the N-VA) or the liberal party called Open VLD

In the end, a combination of parties is now in charge of the municipality. Both Groen and Vlaams Belang gained a huge part of the votes, probably at the expense of parties like the N-VA and Open VLD, which lost over 15% of their votes compared to the elections of 2014. On the city of Ghent's website, we can see that the municipality is ruled by a coalition which consists of Open VLD, Groen, and the social-democratic party sp.a. The mayor of Ghent, Mathias de Clercq, is from Open VLD. With the two largest parties (Groen and the N-VA) being at rather opposite sides of the political spectrum, we would expect the board of Ghent dealing with conflicting ideologies quite often. This would also mean that the board’s decisions and actions can go in many different directions. Oddly enough, however, there are zero counselors from the N-VA or Vlaams Belang in the district's coalition.

2018: Mundano affecting the linguistic landscape of Ghent’s city center

Figure 6: Ghent’s city center, near “Vooruit.” Graffiti art by Mundano (December 12, 2018).

The picture above was taken by one of the researchers. It depicts a panel that has been decorated with graffiti by a Brazilian artist named Mundano. This piece was located on a wall next to the “Vooruit” building, which is a former socialist culture house turned into an art and concert venue in the center of Ghent. Another piece of Mundano’s work, which will be presented later, was situated at the entrance of this building. The art project would be exposed from December 2017 till February 2019, leaving a mark on the linguistic landscape of the city’s center.

On the panel, we see a variety of characters standing close to each other while holding up signs. This is presumably supposed to suggest that the messages and the discourses on these signs are supported by the ones holding them up, while they stand in solidarity with one another. Note how some of the depicted characters are looking sideways, which may signify that they consider their neighbors in a fraternal way.

Different English discourses are noticeable, which shows that Mundano likely aspired to reach as many people as possible. After all, English is a language common to many. The first text we will focus on says: “Art is a gun loaded with future.” This sentence quickly indicates that the maker possesses a very postmodern conviction, namely that art is a tool which is able to affect the future.

On the left, there is a small text that reads: “There is no planet B.” This indicates that Mundano is concerned with the way the earth is treated. He expresses this concern by stressing that humankind has one and only one planet of residence at the moment. A bit below that message, there is a sign saying: “Politicians use truth to tell lies, artists use lies to tell the truth.” With this sentence, Mundano might be arguing that politicians can be rather manipulative, leaving the truth behind while advocating lies, while artists, in his perception, digest these fabricated lies to express themselves critically towards the state of affairs.

On the right side of that sign, there is a board saying: “Water for people, not for profit.” This could be interpreted as Mundano showing his concern for international water policies. Mundano might be hinting at the idea that the natural resources of the earth should not be privatized. Instead, they should be in the hands of the people. This reflects a rather green and socialist line of thought. 

Figure 7: Art panel by Brazilian artist Mundano, made for the Festival of Equality in Ghent’s inner-city (December 12, 2018).

Above this text, we see a sign saying: “Nobody eats money.” This clearly shows an anti-capitalist statement which very much aligns with a socialist way of thinking. The last text on the panel reads: “Real equality isn’t possible, if we don’t celebrate our differences.” (see also Figure 7). This is a bold statement which is in stark contrast to the ideologies of the quickly emerging right wing in Flanders. It is opposed to the strong sense of polarization and segregation that has been affecting the city of Ghent and Flanders in general.

Figure 8: Graffiti art by Mundano at the entrance of culture center "Vooruit" (December 12, 2018).

Figure 8 partially portrays the second half of Mundano’s work, located at the entrance of culture center Vooruit. In this piece, we again see a mix of people suggesting some desired solidarity between members of different backgrounds and ethnicities. This becomes clear through the portrayal of various skin colors and appearances alongside each other.

Apart from that, there are some more semiotic aspects that demand attention. To begin with, there is a red fist attached to a red cross, on a stick held by one of the characters. This is known to be the “Woman Power” symbol, which is often associated with radical feminism (Tanya, 2015). This again shows the socialist nature of Mundano’s work. Another non-verbal sign that is visible on the panel is the rainbow flag, which is a symbol for the LGBTQ rights movement. It seems to show Mundano’s solidarity with the LGBTQ community. There is also a heart depicted at the bottom of this panel. It could have been added to bring more attention to the notion of mutual love.

Mundano himself is a practitioner of artivism.

Most remarkable about this mural is its multilingualism. Different statements are made in different languages. Hence, we get a variety of messages across in the linguistic landscape of this area. To begin, we see the word “artivism” at the top, which is derived from the English words “art” and “activism”. Artivism is a movement that connects both phenomena. The organization called Artivism describes artivism as a movement that focuses on “how art in its multiple forms can embrace political intention, or how political action can become creative, poetic, sensorial”. So, it becomes clear that Mundano himself is a practitioner of artivism.

It was not possible to analyze every written sign on the panel since not every sentence is fully legible. What also played a role is the fact that there are languages used which we are not familiar with. Nevertheless, there are many signs to analyze from this picture of Mundano’s work alone. On the right of the image there is a small sentence saying: “Slay your dragons,” which could be interpreted in various ways. One of the possible interpretations can be retrieved from quora.com, where John Kyle Varley (2018) states the following: “People use the term dragon to categorize the things we fear. Slaying those things means facing and overcoming them despite your fear.” This shows that perseverance and courage are highly valued by Mundano and that he tried to communicate that. 

In the center, a sign says: “Avanti popolo”, an Italian sentence meaning: “Go ahead, people.” "Avanti popolo" is also the alternate name of the song “Bandiera Rossa”, which was frequently played and sung at gatherings of Italian socialists, social-democrats, communists, and trade unionists in the United Kingdom. The song glorifies the red flag, which is a symbol of the socialist and communist movement (Elliott, 2015). This shows that Mundano’s works and his statements are politically influenced. They form a counter noise towards the emerging right-wing ideologies.

Right below that sign, there is a text written in Dutch, saying “Je hoeft niet te slapen om te kunnen dromen” (You do not have to be asleep in order to dream). This sentence might indicate that Mundano wanted to communicate a message that encourages the audience to dream and to pursue change. On the left side of this sign, another Dutch word is depicted: “gelijkheid” (equality). Here, we see again the concept of equality being highlighted in the linguistic landscape of Ghent’s city center. On the right, a sign says: “Drop beats not bombs.” It is a reference to a famous phrase stating that humankind is better off rejoicing in the presence of music (instead of provoking war).

Backward arrow: pointing at the production of Mundano’s art

During the 2017 edition of the Festival of Equality in Ghent, Brazil-based graffiti artist Mundano was invited to create artworks based on ideas of equality. Because of the fact that Mundano uses art to raise awareness of socio-environmental problems (not only in Brazil, but also in the rest of the world), he was the perfect man for this job. Art gallery Kogan Amaro states that with his “graffiti papo reto” (which means "straight to the point"), Mundano creates strong discourses that interact with the reality of the countries he visits.

"I am always seeking ... to bring visibility to the oppressed people."

In this case, Mundano was challenged to deal with the socio-environmental issues relevant in Ghent, Belgium. During an interview with art gallery Kogan Amaro, Mundano says: “I am always seeking the same thing; to generate reflection on the problems of the great urban centers, to charge the authorities and to bring visibility to the oppressed people.” Mundano’s appearance during Ghent’s Equality Festival in December 2017 would eventually render the Vooruit building and its surroundings with colored panels that embodied the strong desire for a prevailing socialist view in the city center.

During the mural's creation, Mundano involved festival visitors and people who were just passing by. He paid attention to their ideas, which he would then include in his artwork. The collaboration between Mundano and the city’s visitors allowed the linguistic landscape of the city center to be affected by a global shared sense of socialism.

Forward arrow: pointing at the audience of Mundano’s art

As mentioned before, the artworks made by Mundano were commissioned by Ghent’s Equality Festival. The festival consecutively made announcements regarding the artist’s forthcoming performance, which would allow visitors to anticipate his arrival. With Mundano’s artworks being situated at the entrance of the Vooruit building and outside of the building, visitors were bound to encounter a colorful panel, which was only a smaller piece of the complete puzzle Mundano left behind in the city center of Ghent.

Curieus (2018), the organization behind the Equality Festival, reported that the festival attracted more than 12,500 people in 2017, meaning that Mundano’s artworks received quite some exposure from the get-go. The Equality Festival, described as a “mecca for progressive souls in Flanders” (Thompson, 2019), presumably succeeded in attracting a large audience which sympathized with Mundano’s expressions.

This is remarkable considering the fact that the festival is known for tackling rather dispiriting global challenges, like rising populism, global warming, and poverty, as well as bullying and sexual harassment. Not only was Mundano’s work made visible for visitors of the Equality Festival, but also for passers-by. In the moment the photos discussed here were taken, not many seemed to pay much attention to Mundano's work. This might suggest that the work's visibilty fell a bit short despite its bright colors. Nevertheless, the work was visible until February 2019.

Sideways arrow: looking at the bigger picture

The colorful graffiti by Mundano was partially situated at the entrance of the art centre Vooruit, which is located in the center of Ghent. Vooruit is known to be an art establishment that provides a platform for several art disciplines. With Vooruit having a reputation of endorsing diversity and outspokenness, it is quite plausible that a place like this would open its doors for an artist like Mundano. And again, not only was Mundano’s work exposed at the entrance of the Vooruit building, but also on a wall close to the building.

Zooming in, art centre Vooruit is located on Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat in Ghent. We could say that this street is quite internationally-oriented. In front of Vooruit, there is a snackbar with döner kebab and “Isparta” written on the window, which shows the snack bar's affiliation with Turkish culture. Not far from Vooruit, on the same street, we see a restaurant called “Tashun”. It seems to have an Eastern/Asian background, which can be deduced from the Buddha statue that is visible on the front sign of the restaurant. Next to it, there are smaller shops and restaurants offering coffee, clothing, accessories, and so on. Some bigger franchise stores, such as America Today, Ace and Tate, and Carhartt are also present on Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat. The street shows a wide array of variety and proves its diversity. It also shows why this place is well-suited for endorsing the ideas Mundano spreads through his art.

2019: No place for counter ideologies in a clean city

When entering the area of the city center between Ghent University and the cultural centre Vooruit on November 28, 2019 (post-elections), we come across long and empty walls. According to locals, these walls were still covered in counter noise (e.g. posters, graffiti) a year earlier. The removal of all this counter noise was probably aimed at keeping the political ideology of the city’s new government intact. The city of Ghent says the following about graffiti and posters: "Undesired graffiti, posters, and stickers on places they do not belong give a depraved impression. Applying graffiti without permission of the owner is therefore punishable."

The governing coalition in Ghent now consists of Open VLD (Liberal Democrats), Groen (ecologists), CD&V (Christian democrats), and s.pa (social democrats). As opposed to Flanders in general, Ghent's N-VA fraction is actually in the opposition (instead of the coalition). Most of Ghent's inhabitants adhere more to left-wing values. In charge of environmental planning and "public cleanliness" in the coalition of Ghent are city counselors from Groen and Open VLD. Therefore, the discourse of an "unspoiled" and clean city can originate either from an environmentalist or a liberal democratic ideology. 

All pictures below were taken in Ghent's centre, on November 28, 2019. 

One of the many empty walls in the city of Ghent.

We analyze signs as examples of indexical and discursive orders (Collins & Slembrouck, 2007, p. 335). The empty walls could be an indicator of a deeper underlying ideology: the order of a "clean and proper city" is to confirm the political default. In other words: there is no space left for counter noise. The new government is powerful. It is able and eager to remove counter noise, thereby silencing those who seek to revolt in the linguistic labndscape.

In order to relate the micro-social frames of a linguistic landscape (or any sociolinguistic phenomenon) to larger macro-social frames, we need to analyze and understand the concept of indexical order (Collins & Slembrouck, 2007, p. 337). In this case, the micro-social frame is that of a graffiti-free city. It refers to the macro-social frame of reaching a clean-looking city in which there is absolutely no room for (political) counter noise. 

Revolt is only visible in small corners of the city, such as ashtrays or traffic poles, i.e. places to which barely anyone pays much attention.

Public spaces, like the city streets of Ghent, are "social arenas". They are instruments of power, discipline, and regulation (Blommaert & Maly, 2014,  p. 3). In these arenas, many people try to acquire authority and control. Public spaces are also institutional, and regulated/owned by official authorities whose roles become clear by the restrictions they impose on, e.g., the use of graffiti and other signs in public space.

Regulations and especially restrictions may empower the political elite to push counter noise to the margins. Revolt is only visible in small corners of the city, such as ashtrays or traffic poles, i.e. places to which barely anyone pays much attention. This brings us to an example of counter noise found in the normatively regulated space of the city of Ghent. Depicted below is an ashtray, situated next to the stairs of Ghent University. It shows the micro-hegemony of the local leftist student neighbourhood. 

This ashtray in front of Ghent University says a lot about the political ideologies of the neighborhood: right-wing ideologies appear to be absent.

When analyzing sociolinguistic semiosis in this part of town, several social hierarchies can be distinguished. First, we see the macro-social normative frame installed by the government as previously described. Then, there appears to be a second layer in this neighbourhood, which we will call the neighborhood's ideology. It consists of some important notions that the majority of the neighborhood's residents seem to share, and it can differ from the ideology of the political elite or other groups (i.e. minorities) within the same neighborhood. In Muide, this dominant, hierarchical, sociolinguistic layer seems to be politically ideological. Specifically, it appears to be rather left-wing. In this part of town, we can analyze sociolinguistic signs like the ones below by considering the three arrows (Blommaert & Maly 2014 p. 4).

The past arrow refers to the origins and modes of production of signs and/or discourses. The picture below shows a sticker with the text "Fuck NVA, no Third Reich in our beautiful neighbourhood". The sticker, placed on an ashtray in front of Ghent University, has been placed very recently (it looks brand new). It explicitly compares the largest political party in Flanders with the utopia of Nazi Germany. It is no institutional sign because it was obviously placed by a citizen (the new government actually has an N-VA prime minister). The person who placed this sticker intentionally expressed the neighbourhood's ideology, which clashes with the new government's.

The future arrow refers to the intended audiences and preferred uptake of signs/discourses. Ghent's citizens want to show they do not agree with the political elite and that they do not support the government. After all, the city voted predominantly for the leftist party Groen (Green). In a rather leftist neighborhood like the student neighbourhood, the intended audiences will therefore probably agree with and standy by the text depicted on the sticker.

The sideways arrow refers to the placement of the sign in public space. The "Fuck NVA" sticker is placed among other leftist expressions. Above that sticker, we can also see another one placed by left-wing anarchists, which says "Nobody is illegal" (see figure above), clearly criticizing the strict immigration policy of the N-VA.

Moving a few steps away from the ashtray, a message from art center Vooruit can be seen (not depicted). A large, professional looking board says: "Nothing for everyone, something for everybody." This is a manifestation of the neighborhood's prevalent left-wing ideology, which is critical of the right-wing government. The fact that there are only few right-wing signs here further shows the neighborhood's leftist stance.

Damaged Schild en Vrienden sticker at a bus stop.

The third and last sociolinguistic hierarchical layer consists of the citizens who form a (political) minority in the neighborhood. The picture below shows a damaged sticker from the previously discussed Schild and Vrienden. It says "Make Flanders great again" and it is one of the only right-wing expressions that can be found in the neighborhood. Its damaged state tells us that the ideology of Schild en Vrienden is not welcome in the neighborhood.

Additionally, the global "green ideology" has also become an established ideology in Ghent's city centre. Political statements about taking care of the climate look far more professionalised than the anarchist or right-wing ideological expressions. They have become default.

This is contrary to Schild and Vrienden and Vlaams Belang's "hot nationalism", as Michael Billig calls it, which is not hegemonic or mainstream. The signs below are placed inside buildings instead of outside and are made by institutional organisations. With "Klimaatstraat" (climate street) signs, Gents Milieufront (GMF) wanted to put the climate issue on the political agenda until the elections. Not only individual citizens but also shops and organisations use these signs to show their support towards the climate demonstrations of recent months. The preferred uptake of these "climate-street" signs is to reach as many people as possible. 

The established ideology of the environmentalists.

A leftist city in right-wing Flanders

In conclusion, we can say that the sociolinguistic landscape of Ghent's inner-city neighbourhood corroborates its latest election results. What we have called "counter noise" in this article is not actually a "counter-ideology" for this region of Flanders, but a mainstream one. The third biggest party in Ghent, Open VLD, was not found explicitly in Ghent's sociolinguistic landscape. This is because it contains "default" ideologies that need not be explicitly articulated, as opposed to, for example, the "hot nationalism" of Schild en Vrienden. The same goes more or less for the green-ideology, which appears to be "on its way" to become default as well. The general ideology of a clean and grafitti free city pushes non-default ideas to the margins of the sociolinguistic landscape of the area. 

Less default, especially for the growing right-wing political elite, are the socialist (far-)left ideologies that are represented quite well in the sociolinguistic landscape of Ghent. Many stickers by far-left anarchists were spotted, along with signs protesting against the largest party in Flanders, i.e. the N-VA. Data from 2019 was in line with data from 2018. To summarize, the data show that the sociolinguistic landscape of Ghent's inner-city expresses a green and left-wing political ideology of which the environmentalist part has become hegemonic. This is contrary to election results of Flanders in general, where the politics have clearly taken an even sharper turn to the right. 



Blommaert, J. & Maly, I. (2014). Ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis and social change: A case study. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies 100. [online] Accessed on december 29th, 2019. 

Collins, J. & Slembrouck, S. (2007). Reading shop windows in globalized neighborhoods: Multilingual literacy practices and indexicality. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(3), 335–356.

Curieus (2018, January 9). 12.500 keer dankjewel.  

Elliott, C. (2015, September 28). Battle lines drawn over the origins of the Bandiera Rossa.

Galeria Kogan Amaro (2019). Interview with Mundano. 

Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism: N‐VA and the discursive battle for the Flemish nation. Nations and Nationalism, 22(2), 266-286.T

Maly, I. (2018). Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies.

Maly, I. (2019). New Right metapolitics and the algorithmic activism of Schild & Vrienden. Social Media + Society, 5(2), 1-15.

Sternhell, Z. (2008). How to think about fascism and its ideology. Constellations, 15(3), 280-290.

Tanya (2015, March 16). Our history: Feminist symbols & images [Blog post]. 

Thompson, L. A. (2019, November 22). Ghent’s Equality Festival takes on a world of problems. 

Varley, J.K. (2018, August 1). What does the expression "slaying dragons" mean?