Turns out, words have consequences


In his recent article for The Guardian, Jacek Dehnel recounts the hatred and violence he and others experienced as part of a Polish Pride Parade in Białystok, Poland, where marchers were outnumbered four to one by protestors. Dehnel describes images of men attacking marchers, burning rainbow flags, throwing bottles and other objects and yelling “f**k-off-fag-gots.” This played out despite supposed police protection.

At the same time, the Law and Justice party, or PiS, held a “family picnic” in the Białystok Branicki Palace gardens, ostensibly to diminish violence against marchers. More likely, the picnic was to show what PiS considers to be a legitimate family: one that is heterosexual. In fact, the local Archbishop reportedly told locals to “defend Christian values” by attending the picnic. This was clear to Dehnel as he tried to pass through the garden on his way out and was told that he and others from the march were not welcome there.

If you’re wondering why you should care about PiS and Polish citizens’ violent responses to Pride (besides, you know, a basic concern for humanity), I’ll tell you: Ryszard Legutko is a member of the PiS and a Member of the European Parliament.

In case you forgot from his visit to campus last April, Legutko described hate crimes against queer people as a “totally fictitious problem,” despite there being at least 120 queer-related hate crimes in Poland in 2014 (in addition to the many that go unreported). Instead, he claims, “Christians are the group that have been discriminated against.” Hence, I suppose, the heavily militarized “family picnic.”

But wait, there’s more! Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS, has also said that queer identities are a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.” The Independent reports that a PiS campaign advertisement made this belief clear when it showed an umbrella with the PiS logo sheltering a heterosexual family (an endangered species, I hear) “from rainbow rain.” Since this statement, about 30 Polish cities and provinces have declared themselves “LGBT-ideology free” zones, complete with stickers.

Now, hold on, you might be thinking to yourself. I thought we could disparage entire groups of people and claim that they are the downfall of democracy, but that it would just be theoretical. I thought we could just engage with ideas (that don’t affect our bodies or lives) and that it would be fun and have no consequences.

Hold your horses, brave defenders of … well, certainly not the right to safety. As you can see, harmful discourse of the type you love so dearly actually informs real life. I didn’t even need a PhD in political philosophy to figure that one out.

Signs Shomo and other student activists made before the planned Legtuko protest this past April

So here are my questions: Why are we legitimizing this hateful, harmful rhetoric by inviting Legutko to speak on our campus not once but likely twice, as Professor Callanan said he had? Why are we still so convinced that there is nothing dangerous about “the diverse thoughts and opinions of all our professors” that dehumanize marginalized groups of people who are literally being murdered? (Thanks to the Political Science Student Advisory Committee for that gem.) Why can’t we Google “critiques of democracy” if we want someone to talk about the flaws in the democratic system, instead of financially and ideologically supporting a bigot? We owe it not just to our community, but also to queer people being persecuted in Poland and everywhere, not to bring him back.

But look, I’m a realistic person. I know that the Alexander Hamilton Forum is going to re-invite Legutko, and, as far as I know, he will accept. It was exhausting and traumatizing and wholly disheartening to plan the protest in April. I lost my faith in the Middlebury College community for what felt like the hundredth time. But that will not stop me from planning and executing another response the next time Legutko steps foot on our campus.

And so, for myself, for my girlfriend, for all of the queer people at Middlebury who have to put up with this and for all of the queer people in Poland who have been hurt, I have this to say: Legutko, I’m ready for you. Who’s with me?

Taite Shomo is a member of the class of 2020.5