WARSAW — There is something utterly traumatic and symbolic in a death happening in public space. On such a Monday, January 14th, I was in a library cut off from the world, focused on my research. That evening on the tram, I remember reading an SMS from a friend in Gdańsk: “8 o clock candle for the mayor.” I was confused, but I understood that something had happened. When I got home, I read the news: Paweł Adamowicz, the longtime mayor of Gdańsk had been stabbed by a man recently released from jail. He blamed the mayor and the Civic Platform party for his conviction. All happened on stage during a charity event: The Great Orchestra of Christmas. Thousands witnessed that moment either at the venue or broadcasted on TV. The way this public death has been experienced, described, and narrated, is shaping a shared memory and informing reflections on the past, present, and future. And, even more importantly, it is shaping practical actions on a micro and macro scale in the realm of politics, social, and cultural life.
We ask: could this have been avoided? For sure, there were ignored signs. Since the Law and Justice party (PiS) won the 2015 parliamentary election, Poland has become an example of a nationalist populist country that limits nongovernmental organizations and defies democratic norms with its assault on the media and the courts. Many controversial changes were introduced in the shadow of the ‘Smolensk mythology’: an event in 2010, in which dozens of political leaders and government officials died in a plane crash. They were on their way to attend the 70th anniversary commemorating Polish military officers who had been murdered by the Soviet secret police. This catastrophic accident assumed power and magnitude for its symbolic potential as a source of conspiracies blaming Russia and Donald Tusk’s government. Almost immediately after the incident, officials of the Law and Justice party harnessed popular reactions to this tragedy to advocate for ‘protecting real Polish values,’ which translated into introducing controversial legislation.
However, democracy is not dying in silence and it responds through symbology and the animation of public spaces throughout the country. There have been numerous demonstrations and marches, and even more desperate acts of protests. Like what transpired on October 19, 2017 on Parade Square in front of the Palace of Culture, a Warsaw landmark. Piotr Szczesny set himself on fire. But not before scattering leaflets around himself explaining his act: “I love freedom above all, that’s why I decided to commit the act of self-immolation and I hope that my death will shake the conscience of many people.” He died a few days later from related injuries. Szczesny accused the government of limiting civil rights, destroying the constitutional court and the independent judicial system. His act was also a protest against the hate speech and xenophobia expressed by authorities within the public sphere through debate and the politicization of media. Still today you find candles in the place where he committed this desperate act.
Parade Square is at the very center of Warsaw — situated between busy streets, close to the main train and metro stations with many passers-by all day and all night. Szczesny’s act of protest happened in this public space and was for sure visible, but how was it ‘seen’? How was it ‘heard’? Attending a continuum of regular anti-authoritarian demonstrations in Warsaw, beginning in earnest in 2015, I have felt that there are two cities, two spaces existing one within another. The paths of protesters and the paths of passers-by, both on the same street, but not meeting. The protests are visible, but not seen, they are loud, but not heard.
In Hannah Arendt writing, public space is described as a sphere intrinsically connected to people, a common ground to be seen and heard. To the Greeks — the original reference — this was the great privilege of public life, as it was lacking in the privacy of the household, where everything was hidden and could neither appear nor shine. The meaning and importance of the agora was an example of that thinking. I would like to emphasize the subtle importance of Arendt choice of words: ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ — and not for instance ‘what is visible’, or ‘what is said’ in public. ‘Seen’ and ‘heard’ stresses the activity of the subject — the privilege and burden of the subject to be active, to actually see and hear, and to think, to think critically. However, subjects might be ignorant, indifferent, they may absorb the dominant discourses without reflection, or they might be active in a harmful way; various acts of hate speech, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and so forth have become the norm in recent years.
Precisely this atmosphere of hatred and intolerance has been emphasized by many commentators since the tragedy in Gdańsk. Pawel Adamowicz was a unique politician in the Polish scene, who in spite of the dominant rhetoric, welcomed refugees and led the LGBT parade in his beloved city. These non-popular views made him the target of attacks. The parameters of hate speech are to a certain extent measurable. Shortly after the Mayor’s death, the Council of Ethics in Media, a regulatory body that monitors for fair and balanced media coverage, published a report officially stating that ‘public’ TV was manipulating the facts about Adamowicz. As well, a report by the Batory Foundation in 2016 measured a dramatic increase in hate speech used in public space, including media outlets, directed especially at different religions, ethnic groups, and the LGBT community. There were disturbing incidents like burning a puppet in the form of an Orthodox Jew during a far-right protest in Wroclaw (2015), and numerous attacks of vandalism on shops and places run by non-Polish people.
In one of the opinions written in light of the Mayor’s attack and subsequent death, a commentator evokes an everyday situation from the street. A boy runs fast into a shop and his father calls after him: “Peter, come back because the refugees will take you away.” That is a measure of the pervasive and insidious nature of hate speech at this moment, a reflection of the success of statewide propaganda — language that has gone through the process of neutralization, transparency, commonness. Hate speech is present in everyday language, on the bus, in the shop, at work, in different aspects of public space. Tee-shirts reading “Death to the enemies of the homeland!” are popular and noticeable on the street. Hate speech dominates the internet. Of course, there are still activists, non-governmental organizations, strong local communities, and many other people who care and have energy and the will to formulate opposing voices and act, and they have power — this is really important to say. But still, the atmosphere of hate is felt as if it is touching the skin, touching the body, consuming, absorbing, colonizing all physical and virtual space. One can turn off or ignore the TV, but how can we live without entering public space? How can there be a dialog in public space, if it lacks neutrality? How can hate speech be discerned when a place is submerged in hate? How can hate be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ if it is not acknowledged? The environment has become untenable, the everyday atmosphere of hate and contempt, suffocating. And it was one of the main reasons why this winter, I chose to leave Poland.
On Monday, January 14th, when people still believed Mayor Paweł Adamowicz might survive, silent marches battling hate speech and rhetoric in politics took place across Poland. In Warsaw, people gathered on The Parade Square, and when the news about death was confirmed, they silently, spontaneously walked to the Zachęta, The National Gallery of Art, to put candles on the stairs. In 1922, our left-wing president of interwar Poland was shot by a right-wing activist. In these two incidents, there are many similarities, as well as many differences. I leave the details for historians.
What strikes a philosopher are two things; the way the historical event remains a part of our shared memory, and the specific symbol of the physical space. When one stands at the Zachęta stairs, to the left stretches Piłsudski Square — Warsaw’s largest square. It contains three monuments: the cross (commemorating Pope John Paul II’s celebration of Holy Mass in 1979), the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and The Monument to the Victims of the Smolensk Plane Crash. The latter monument, a black block of heavy stairs is new, from April 2018, and it was commissioned and installed by the current government without consultations. It raises concerns because of its size and scale and materiality in an architecturally fragile context. This square, an urban element that usually evokes a feeling of unity, has been thwarted.
The square recalls the metaphor of ‘table’ as Hannah Arendt animates it in The Human Condition. In that particular text, she reflects on stable settings for human lives and draws attention to the metaphor of a table around which people gather. A material object that simultaneously relates and separates us. Arendt believed that reality is only clear to us and made visible through sharing thoughts with people who hold different perspectives. Without common ground, that might assume form as a public square, what dominates political conversation are feelings, desires, and fears. In a mature democracy, people with the drastically opposite views should be still able to meet and talk. I look at the assassination of Mayor Paweł Adamowicz not as a Polish problem, but as a lesson of universal import; a proof that violent acts in public space are fueled when hate speech is encouraged. It is a warning, that violent, disrespectful words should be treated seriously — always.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.