Monday, February 18, 2008

Charter 77 and Moral Responsibility

In January 1977, a document titled Charter 77 (Charta 77 in Czech and Slovak) was published as a manifesto in a West German newspaper after being circulated within communist Czechoslovakia. It was signed by 243 Czechoslovak citizens, including well-known signatories Vaclav Havel and Jan Patocka. The document criticized the Czechoslovak communist government's "systematic violation of human rights and freedoms" and its failure to uphold the human rights laws it had agreed to follow in the Czechoslovak constitution, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and in various United Nations covenants. The authors of the document took great pains to emphasize the informality of their association and the fact that it in no way formed a basis for political opposition to the communist regime.

The Czechoslovak government dealt severely with the signatories, who were publicly denounced as traitors and imperialist agents by the communist party and its state media apparatus. Many of them were fired from their jobs, their children were denied access to higher education, privileges such as their drivers' licenses and passports were suspended, and some dissidents were even exiled or imprisoned. Their lives were essentially ruined because they signed a document which, in so many words, asked the Czechoslovak government to follow its own laws. Although many more of the Czech people sympathized with the signatories, they did not sign the Charter, and thus they bear part of the responsibility for the suffering of those who did.

Likewise, critical or inflammatory blog comments posted anonymously, unsigned emails, letters, and other such messages are the recourse of the coward. If one cannot take responsibility for one's opinion, then one does not deserve to have one. Even in the face of severe reprisals, people who author these kinds of statements anonymously must realize that in choosing not to sign their name they are undermining the possibility of living in truth that forms the bedrock of civil society, and thus they become morally complicit in the wrongdoing they seek to criticize. This is not to say that people should always throw their lives away needlessly, but rather that it is not possible to be both brave and cowardly at the same time. Sometimes a coward is the sensible thing to be, not only for one's own sake but for the sake of one's children: this is why the various totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were among the worst indignities ever inflicted upon the human race.


Glenn said...

On the other hand, as a poet who has to enter the insular poetry job world soon, if I post a review of somebody's book and they get pissed, they may try to make it their mission to destroy any potential career I may have.

For instance, a couple years ago I went to this reading. It was a pretty shitty reading for this new book of poems. So I said in my myspace blog that "it was probably worse than the holocaust." (I know, I know, insensitive, but it was hyperbole). Anyway, the editor of that anthology found what I had said and started telling people I knew and people I didn't know that I was antisemitic and a douchebag. So now I am hesitant to use my name on my goodreads account on the off chance that it prevents me from getting into a school, or winning a contest, or getting a job somewhere. Cowardly? Probably. But that's how poetry works I guess.

John MacEachern said...

You can post all the anonymous scathing reviews you want, for whatever reasons you want. But they'll never ring true like a single great review with your name on it would, and they'll never be as morally satisfying. I'm not saying people don't have (what they consider to be) valid reasons to post anonymously, and only they can make that call. I'm just saying it's cowardly to not take responsibility for your opinion. Realpolitik is a fact of life, but cowardice is cowardice, whether the coward feels it's justified or not. No one ever has to make excuses for being brave. Then again, there's a reason why "cavalier" simultaneously means "brave" and "foolish" or "rash."

Do you see what I mean, though? We can try to understand cowardice, and sympathize with people's reasons, but we can't relativize it out of existence just because people have reasons.