Words Are Important

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.

Words Are Important

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (www.transformationsociety.net), a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium (www.information4zero.org) and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

8 thoughts on “Words Are Important”

  1. Hi Ray,
    Thanks for your essay on words. I certainly agree with you. It raises the question for me as to what responsibility the speaker/writer has when he uses his words. Charlie Hebdo’s words (and drawings) certainly had the power to evoke murderous rage in Muslims, probably even in those who didn’t act on it. But as a foreigner, I’m confused by France’s response. Charlie’s words were legal. But Dieudonné’s “I am Charlie…Coulibaly” was not. I interpreted these few words to mean that he saw both sides of the issue; of course he was Charlie; his own earlier words had been so powerful that his one-man act had been closed down. But he was also Coulibaly, a Muslim who has experienced anti-Arabism. I really couldn’t see why this was so offensive. It encompassed both sides, something that I thought could, if people recognized it, bring the two sides together rather than divide them further. (I admit that perhaps his timing was bad.) But, even if the words were offensive to some, rather than being treated as a “naughty child,” he was jailed. Is this the response of a democracy? It sounds more like what Codrescu meant in describing words in Ceaucescu’s Romania. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see myself as anti-semitic; however, there seem to be two laws regarding “words” in France–one for anti-Arabic words and one for anti-Semitic words. Only the anti-Semitic words will get you in jail. Is this a reaction to France’s WWII anti-Semitism? Is France’s own guilt behind this discrepancy?

    1. Pam, thank you for your comment.

      First things first: Coulibaly is not a poor victim of prejudice, he’s a hostage taker and a killer, something that Charlie Hebdo never engaged in – bad taste, perhaps poor judgement notwithstanding. Coulibaly was in direct collaboration with the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Charlie has always been vividly anti-clerical, and they dish it to the clerics, and religious institutions of all faiths, especially the majority Catholic Church in France, so while they can be accused of taking risks, bad taste, poor judgement, they can’t be accused of being anti-Muslim nor anti-Christian nor antisemite.

      Not only that, but Coulibaly’s clear, stated intent was to “kill Jews.” He had also, already, killed a police officer. See the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amedy_Coulibaly

      Next – In France, as in most democracies (including Canada) other than the United States, hate speech is illegal. You can use profanity and obscenity against political figures or ordinary citizens in public (which will get you jailed in the U.S.), but you cannot attack them on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, or national origins, or their sex or sexual preferences, for that matter. The U.S. concept of “slippery slope” does not exist here. Hate speech is outlawed, period. Felix Frankfurter famously put the limits of freedom of speech at shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Most of the rest of the Western world thinks that hate is a legitimate limit.

      Dieudonné has been tried and convicted multiple times for hate speech by a court system that is fairly reluctant to convict on that basis, due to the subjectivity of interpretation. The U.S. permits hate speech so long as it does not incite violence. In France, Dieudonné could have been jailed for making the same slurs against Arabs, Haitians, or Zoar-Astrians. I know of no spokesperson for any mainstream Muslim organization in France who supports Dieudonné. His stuff is not simply bad taste or bad judgement, it’s hateful.

      One of the paradoxes of French life at the moment is that often Jewish and Muslim cemeteries are desecrated by the same neo-Nazi groups who paint swastikas and hate slogans on the tombs. At the same time, young Muslims desecrate Jewish cemeteries because they feel sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and make no distinction between Jews and Israelis. The French education system is at a loss to deal with either, alas.

      Charlie Hebdo was taken to court about the caricatures of Mohammed. It was deemed that the images did not constitute hate speech, but political commentary. That might be a debatable decision, but it was tested in the courts, same as Dieudonné’s performances.

      There is only one law in France that you could say applies specifically to the Jewish situation, and that is the law against “negationism” which is defined as denying the existence of the holocaust, death camps, etc. I do believe that either there is a law, or there is a movement to pass a law, against denying the Armenian genocide of WWI as well. Some “historians” have had their books removed from sales in France for negationsim. To my knowledge, no one has been jailed for it. Naom Chomsky has defended the negationalists, saying their idea is totally absurd but they have the right to say it (citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of course). Jean-Marie Le Pen has never been successfully prosecuted for his statements that the gas chambers were “a detail of history.” So as you see, the courts are not rabid on this subject.

      In sum, referring to Coulibaly could never have been, as you suggested, something that “could, if people recognized it, bring the two sides together rather than divide them further.” It was, rather, a deliberate provocation made in a moment when everyone was on edge. There was nothing sympathetic, or sympathizable about it. It was, in fact, supporting the terrorists and endorsing their actions. And even in the U.S., that would be against the law.

      I hope that clarifies things a bit better.

  2. Thanks, Ray, for an excellent essay. The main problem, I think, is not that words lose their power when nobody goes to jail, but that most people don’t recognize the power of words and, as a result, never speak out.

    A footnote: In the U.S., hate speech is being criminalized in a growing number of jurisdictions — the “slippery slope” notwithstanding. I think that reflects a growing realization that words do have power, especially when technology makes it so easy to broadcast one’s views and have them be heard.

    1. Well, I have to say that the US has perfected the trivialization of speech. The last US president to officially invade a country told the world that the record numbers of protesters had every right to protest. But that he clearly stated they would have no effect on his decision. That administration also made exceptional use of the concept of “free speech zones” — an oxymoron if there ever was one. And it appointed a chief justice who ruled that money is speech. Finally, the media are all too willing to play along — the only time a protest attracts media attention is when there is violence. Monthly protests in NYC against the war in Iraq never got a mention in the NY Times, yet violent protests against the WTO in Seattle got front-page coverage.

      Yes, words have power, but only as long as they can rise above the din. I’m afraid the blend of high-tech comfort, long working hours, and an entertainment culture makes a lot of noise.

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