Commentary. In solidarity with Michela Murgia, the Italian novelist accused of offending the armed forces and the police. Condemning an opinion is an act of intimidation, especially when carried out by those who should protect us and our freedom of expression.

When power takes it out on words

Words create images, and images feed reality. Domenico Starnone reminds us of this fact in an article published in Internazionale: the imagery that the words “police,” “carabinieri” or “army” carry with them is an imagery linked to security and defense, but also to fear, to threat, to a form of power exercised via the uniform. For the same reason, some time ago, in Milan, as a woman was bothering the patrons of a bar, telling them things they didn’t like to hear, the small crowd threatened: “Stop it or we’ll call the police.” It’s true, as Starnone says, that it is not the criminals who are afraid of the uniform, but above all those who are trying to live good lives. And to say so is not a crime, nor an accusation or an insult.

“Twenty-six letters in all. These letters make up words. These words, everything,” Sapphire writes in her book Push. And that’s exactly how it is. So, words can also be frightening, and words are never self-contained from the perspective of a historian, of a context, if it is true—as I believe—that words create genealogy and that truths (and words and fears and emotions) can change as the context changes. And as grammars change.

Within a grammar and in a reality that is accompanied by a military lexicon, such as the one used during the pandemic and thus still highly fashionable (that of “war” and all the words pertaining to that semantic area), the word “uniform,” and thus also the thing itself, can be frightening if used out of context, or out of its proper register—and often the two usages coincide.

They are especially frightening when—as I have experienced myself, and as has happened several times to me and to other people who have reported similar events (see the article by Ginevra Bompiani in il manifesto from April 18, 2020)—a policeman demands to see the contents of my shopping bag to make sure I have a good reason to be in line at the supermarket during lockdown. Just one example.

The reconceptualization of the uniform, as of any type of dress, place or even moment, involves a change of direction. It involves gestures that create community, that generate trust, mutual safety and not fear. For those readers who might feel attacked on a personal level when I’m talking about uniforms, I would like to recall the article by Alessandro Giammei published in Domani: “The general and his uniform are not the same person,” a variation of the statement that I believe is always valid: “the author and his work are not the same thing,” or “the armor and the knight are not one and the same.”

Saying that uniforms are frightening is a free opinion. Condemning that opinion, and, with that opinion, the person who expressed it, is an act of intimidation and public pillorying, especially when carried out by those who should protect us and our freedom of expression. It is a politically charged act that causes cracks to appear on the beautiful outer surface of democracy, making it creep dangerously towards a democratic-dictatorship hybrid.

As I have said, words create images and reality—and now, a few days after the Ministry of Defense accused the writer and intellectual Michela Murgia of offending the armed forces and the police forces, she was the victim of intimidation at Termini station in Rome at the hands of a carabiniere who recognized her as he was checking her self-certification. “Are you afraid of my uniform?” he asked.

I would have answered, yes, right now, I am—as the person whose job is just to check my documents, and not to investigate my political opinions, chose to wave me on with a “Go, go, you’d better go.” Actions are even more frightening than words, especially when committed by an institution against a private citizen, irrespective of her visibility resulting from her profession.

And that private citizen could be me, could be anyone, if they express dissent of a kind that is apparently not tolerated. This is a problem. In a democracy, dissent must be safeguarded and protected as the most precious lifeblood of the democratic system on which our common life is based, and dissent is dealt with through rhetorical confrontation, not practical conflict. Practical conflict is, to make it clear once again, the realm of war.

With these reflections, I’d like to express my full solidarity for Michela Murgia, with the hope that all the Italian citizens, men and women, will hold the public institutions accountable for any similar acts of intimidation.

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