On Sunday, we will read works by those who have championed social justice, who have spoken at moments in history when it might have been easier to be silent.
‘Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech’
— Martin Luther King Jr.
IN “Easter 1916,” the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote these following lines about the people who would become the martyrs of his country’s revolt against British rule:
“I have met them at close of day / Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk among gray / Eighteenth century houses. / I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words / Or lingered a while and said / Polite meaningless words.”
That last phrase is tattooed on my arm because, as someone who has made it his life’s work to value words, I want to remind myself never to slip into empty banter when interacting with other people, to remember the beauty and dignity of potential of every human and use appropriate words. A hard goal to live up to, sure — but aren’t all ideals?
Since the November election, though, I have found myself mulling this ideal. Distinguishing between “polite” and “impolite,” “meaningful” and “meaningless” seem almost silly activities in a country where the President-elect has been given cultural permission to speak like a braggart of sexual assault, to bend facts like thin willow branches, to use social media (rather than serious discourse) to communicate policy — which is to say nothing of the fevered rhetoric of those who would turn our country into a walled white citadel governed by plutocratic rulers.
Further, if, as The Wall Street Journal recently asserted by refusing to refer to lies as lies, in this new dispensation, all words are defined by an audiences’ chosen interpretation, nothing is accurate or inaccurate, and every single interaction in language is just a temporary construction driven by convenience rather than conviction: at best, polite, and often, without sincerity; at worst, a shrill echo chamber in which falsehoods become facts.
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, 14 writers in Seattle will read excerpts from their work and the writings of other American thinkers concerned with freedom of speech, as part of a nationwide series of readings celebrating American ideals of freedom and equality. A discussion will follow, and the bar will stay open. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Town Hall Seattle, $5.
Language is ambiguous, and that ambiguity can be beautiful, but ambiguity isn’t the same thing as meaninglessness. When words become meaningless, they are, perhaps, at their most dangerous. As Shakespeare noted in Hamlet, “Words, words, words,” however mad, can have method, and it seems that the fantastical racket of our moment has brought out the less generous aspects of human nature and helped create alluring visions for many within our electorate: Visions of a homogeneous culture in opposition to a rapidly diversifying world; nostalgic and horrifying visions in which guys will be guys (and apparently talk like sexual predators) and girls will be girls (and constrained by sexist ideals of behavior and beauty); xenophobic, judgmental, and exclusionary visions in which being big league (or bigly) rich is the most admirable of attributes — a vision that so many Americans apparently admire more than any ethical or intellectual attributes as the only qualification for the most complicated job on our planet.
I do not share these visions, and I remind myself that saying so — clearly, precisely — is a wonderful right that our greatest leaders celebrated and used for good. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last speech, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
In the spirit of his legacy and in honor of his vision of how America can be great, on Sunday, many writers will gather at 7:30 p.m. at Seattle Town Hall to celebrate free speech and affirm the importance of carefully chosen words. We will read works by those who have championed social justice, who have spoken at moments in history when it might have been easier to be silent. We will probably laugh a little and lament a lot as we show solidarity with one another and with those who cannot be present; we will recognize the responsibility of defending those who do not have access to power and of doing all that we can to provide that access.
We will shout with outrage, and we will sing of hope. We may not be polite, but we will be civil and affirm that precise language matters because it is a little easier to love one another if we understand one another. Lastly, we will not be idle while others debase words and people for their selfish, egotistical and mercenary ends.
Please join us and thousands of people and writers across our country — in Los Angeles and New York, Spokane and Olympia — as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s vision of love and acceptance, the poetic power of meaningful words and our shared convictions that free speech is important, and that we will resist anything that would say otherwise.