Semantic Diligence

Shh…“Watch your words”, “Be careful what you say”, “Look before you leap”. I was told to mind my words as a child, but it never stopped me getting in trouble with teachers at school. I was the naughty little boy who was always told off for talking too much. “Chatterbox”, “always chatting”, “natters like an old woman” would sum up my yearly school reports. Not much has changed nowadays and I often find myself having to bite my tongue in situations where I might blurt out the inappropriate.

This leads elegantly to the issue of watching your words in the international media and political discourse. Journalists and politicians earn their daily bread by pushing interpretations to the limit. Recently, two stories have been dominating the headlines in Poland.

The first concerns Russian outrage on the decision of the director of Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum to not allow a Russian/Soviet exposition to be open for viewing. The reason why it has been put on hold for a number of years is the insistence by the Russian government that a number of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian and Polish nationals who died in the concentration/death camp were Soviet citizens. The Museum directorship have made it clear that these individuals had Soviet citizenship forced upon them through the realisation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and should not therefore be seen as citizens of the Soviet Empire but as nationals of their respective former countries. The International Auschwitz Council has spoken of its disgust at the Russian government for using Auschwitz victims as pawns in its continuing Anti-Polish political campaign and has agreed wholeheartedly with the decision taken by the Museum’s director.

The second story concerns the publication by Axel Springer’s Die Welt Online of captions poking fun at Pope John Paul II, especially recent calls for him to be made a saint and the fact that he had Parkinson’s disease. Most Polish commentators and journalists claim the captions are in bad taste and simply point to the fact that the editors and publishers of Die Welt have shown no respect for one of the most positive figures the world has ever seen, and have simply shown us their lack of style and culture.

The first story shows how far semantic manipulation will go to put the political needs of a nation above the memory of a group of individuals. The fact that people died in Auschwitz far outweighs the need to harp on about where they actually came from or what passports they held (or were forced to hold).

The second story shows us how the right to freedom of speech is exercised to – what some might see as – its very limits. One side will fight for the right to make fun of anyone they deem fit to be made fun of, whereas the other side believes there are borders to this freedom based on a sense of good taste and style.

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