Back in the 80s, when I worked in radio, I remember very vividly the words of Andre Codrescu, a writer and commentator on NPR, the U.S. national public radio network. Codrescu came to the U.S. escaping Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. In one commentary, he was recalling some event involving either protest, writing, or both. I no longer recall what the event was, but I remember this sentence:
In Romania, words have power. You can go to jail for them.
The sentence struck me particularly strongly because not very long before, I had done a report for NPR on an art exhibit at New York’s Franklin Furnace exhibition space, entitled “Illegal America – Art that Broke the Law.” It presented a series of art works, or documentation of art works, that played with the idea of transgression to varying degrees. Works included everything from petty theft (sculptures made entirely from stolen hubcaps) to potential treason (Jane Fonda’s 1972 broadcast from Hanoi denouncing the Vietnam war).
What was striking in this exhibit, was that nobody went to jail for the works in it.
It got me thinking about a major paradox of democracy: when you have freedom of expression, it is possible that the words you use to express yourself have less power and influence than they would in a totalitarian state where your words can put you in jail.
This is why many of the artists in the exhibition crossed the line of legality – they wanted to demonstrate the power of their “words” (now using “words” as an avatar for any communicative expression). American society, by not punishing these transgressions, turned the artists from subversives into naughty children, to be admonished, tolerated, indulged, but not to be taken seriously. Their words were stripped of their power.
Last November I published a post dealing with an event that touched my family, concerning the importance of labels. The word “fascist,” applied unjustly to someone, put him in the hospital and maimed him for life.
Labels are words, and they have power.
Only a couple of months after the incident I wrote about, radical terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly with decidedly bad taste, and killed twelve people, simply because Charlie insisted on its right to free expression – even if it is offensive to some, or in bad taste.
Suddenly, it wasn’t a case of naughty children anymore. It was a case of powerful words. You could die for them.
Now, news reports say a 17-year-old student, editor of the school paper in a Paris suburb, has received seven threats for producing a special issue that included essays and poems about the Charlie Hebdo attack. One of the people killed in the attack was the father of a student at the school.
The threats included letters sent with bullets and swastikas enclosed, some sent to the student’s home, others left in his school locker. The student resigned his post as editor, but the threats continued.
Words have power. You can be threatened by them, and for them. You can be silenced by them and for them.
So when we’re spying on peoples’ phone calls and emails, or looking to see if someone’s public expression is “politically correct,” or curtailing freedoms in order to “protect our precious liberty,” maybe we should remember how we got here. Maybe we should remember the power of the words that we still have freedom to utter, and not let the extremists (of whatever ideological colour) dictate what we can, or will, do or say. Maybe we should remember.