Words have consequences

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"Vandalism" in Greek used to be quite a precise word. In dictionaries it was described as the "intentional destruction of works of art". A long time ago the word was stretched. "Vandalism" now means the "deliberate destruction of everything", even if that has no artistic value at all. It was probably the ire of owners that stretched the word: They needed a stronger word to describe their misfortune and they stretched the word till they destroyed the signification. Today we don't have a different word for the "deliberate destruction of works of art". When all willful destruction is "vandalism", vandalism seizes to exist.

The stretching of "vandalism" does not stop here. Now it is the anger of the so-called "vandals" that sunders the element of intentionality from the meaning of the word. I first encountered the double stretched word in Panteio University of Athens during a conference about the role of Mass Media during December riots. When a speaker uttered the word "vandalism" a student stood up and shouted "vandalism is not the uprising of the young, vandalism is the submission of youth". Of course neither is "vandalism" but when stretching words becomes an acceptable practice, discussion becomes impossible. Moreover stretched words can be used as excuses for violent acts.

Two of the vandalized words in Greek society are "violence" and "power". Long time ago, "violence" only meant what we call today "physical violence". In our postmodern public dialogue "violence" is everywhere and every human contact can be tagged as a violent one. State has the monopoly of violence, and this Weberian notion is stretched to the belief that every expression of governance is violent. Acrimonious speech is considered "violent speech". The educational system is "a relation of power between the instructor and pupils", so it has elements of violence with in. Even cars exert violence -there was graffiti during December that prompted for "violence to the violence of cars".

Metaphorically speaking, cars exert some kind of violence in our lives. But this metaphor, combined with the glint of postmodern pedagogic, becomes literal scheme in the minds of young people. A lot of people take for granted that physical, psychological and metaphoric violence is the exact same thing. But, if everything is violence, physical violence is excused. When cars are considered violent, burning them is self-defense. Of course these postmodern schemes do not appeal to everyone, but on the other hand not everyone was burning and looting during the December riots in Athens.

Edmund Burk's "fourth estate" was translated in Greek as the "fourth branch of government". In the minds of people and (unfortunately) politicians mass media posses power equal or even bigger than the three traditional branches. Of course, speech in general has the power to shape beliefs, which they might eventually become laws or executive orders. But even if we take for granted the metaphore that the "pen is mightier than the sword", speech -even the most acrimonious- does not physically hurt people and it is different from "violence", as it used to be perceived. Mass media do not have a share in the monopoly of violence: They don't make laws, they do not arrest people, and they don't jail them.

This is becoming less and less clear in Greek society. Speech is often described as violent and sometimes punished legally harsher than actual acts of physical violence, because in the mind of lawmakers "language has no bones, but it can break bones". On the basis that violence is not only physical, but can also be psychological, free speech is restricted. On the other hand, when the press is considered as a government branch, then it should be restricted in the way the three traditional branches are restricted. And it does so. There are several laws that restrict the media industry on the basis of their exercising power.

When postmodernism meets bad translation, intellectuals and journalists should live in fear. One of the popular slogans chanted in demonstrations was "violence to the violence of power" (of the state, authorities etc.) If speech is violence and the media posses power, then to the mind of the "revolutionary" the media, journalists and intellectuals become legitimate targets. And indeed they did. Small bombs were detonated right at the front doors of writers and a new terrorist group opened fire aiming the cars of a television station, saying that they attacked the "4th branch of government", an "ally of the establishment", because "journalism won the confidence of society pretending that it is against power but in reality climbed to be the first power in society" and "media shape our everyday lives (...) so we become disciplined subjects. They manipulate our minds every single day so that we fill the reserve of our disciplined time with the values and faculties of the system".

If all these sound nonsense, we should take into consideration that it is the dominant rhetoric in Greece. They are written in articles, they are taught in schools, though in more glitter terms. Greece lives in a nebula of not well-defined concepts. Postmodernism prevails in humanities; metaphorical speech is taken literally not only by kids on the streets but by the high priests of the dominant leftist ideology. The destruction of meaning turns eventually into destruction of property and in the case of power symbols, like policemen, to the destruction of life.

Of course the December riots were not just a big misunderstanding of concepts. They contained a lot of anger for real problems. They had the frustration of a generation that believes that has no future. Teachers and pupils deal with a bureaucratic and ineffective educational system every day. Political scandals and ineffectiveness of government played a role. All sociological explanations describe the big mess that Greece is in.

What is different this time is the way this exasperation was expressed. The destruction of meaning also destroyed the political intervention of the December student rallies. When postmodernism hits the streets we have riots with no clear political demands. Moreover, many argued that the "uprising didn't need a specific statement of demands. What happened is a statement that something goes wrong". But this postmodernism with different means: it doesn't clarify anything and it doesn't help to solve problems.

Published in the volume "The Return of Street Politics? Essays on December Riots in Greece", ed. by Spyros Economides and Vasilis Monastiriotis, London School of Economics, May 2009