An inappropriate, if nothing else, post by Doros Polykarpou [Translator’s note: head of KISA, an NGO that works to support migrants] on social media, in which he spoke out against the former fighter and president of the EOKA Fighters Association, Thasos Sofocleous, and what followed, once again confirmed the dividing lines within society, and especially our utter inability to communicate from a political point of view. To engage in a serious dialogue about the past, the EOKA struggle and our tolerance of other points of view.
DISY [Democratic Rally] described the posts that insult the memory of the dead as highly unacceptable and reprehensible, noting that “such divisive attitudes provoke the sentiments and historical consciousness of our society, they promote fanaticism… they desecrate the epic struggle of EOKA and insult the memory of all those who participated in it”. And Michalis Sofocleous [former DISY MP] wondered “why this (in)human being is still walking around free”. Doros Polykarpou’s comment was described as rude, out of proportion, with bad timing. And maybe it was all of the above. But why should it have been decent, within bounds and timed in a way that the majority would see fit for it to be expressed?
This is a highly problematic reaction, which attempts to set limits to freedom of expression in a problematic and arbitrary way. What is this historical consciousness of society, which DISY invokes, that one cannot challenge? What does it entail? Who assigned to the right-wing party the responsibility of defining the historical consciousness of an entire society? Why can’t a struggle, however epic it may be considered, be challenged? In what sense is it desecrated? Can’t a period of history or its protagonists be judged for any mistakes or wrongdoings they may have committed? Since when does expressing a negative opinion of an individual offend the memory of the whole? And ultimately, when does a person have the right to speak (can a person have an opinion and speak it if it is considered heretical, or is this right limited to those whose opinions are considered valid by the majority?). And when does that person [have the right to] walk around free?
There are clearly limits between free speech and offensiveness. This right, like any other, is not absolute. In the case at hand, however, none of the arguments raised convinced us that the harm to the whole from the expression of the particular viewpoint was such that it justified the ensuing debate. If anything, one could argue that bigotry was also promoted by the DISY statement.
It is hard to argue that statements such as that of Doros Polykarpou offer much (in terms of their content) to the public debate. But their expression is more beneficial than their silencing, even if they reflexively divide society into camps. Precisely because it is the dialectic between positions and objections, the projection – even of such views that are offensive to some – is the main means of social evolution. But mainly because their expression affirms the freedom of expression that is a basic principle and one of the main prerequisites for the functioning of democracy. Freedom lies here: in the right of one person to express a position in a way that others may consider extreme, repugnant or even dangerous. The right to mild speech, which bothers no one, needs no defence.
If Polykarpou’s statement or DISY’s announcement demonstrates anything, it is precisely our inability to soberly discuss history. To open its difficult and uncomfortable chapters – including the bitter aspects which, as in every armed struggle, were there – and to close wounds. As a result, any event leads to a meaningless confrontation that revolves around historical validity. Without dialectics and without arguments. And the public debate has for decades been reduced to the overbearing utterance of slogans.
I do not know Thasos Sofocleous. I don’t know whether the accusations against him concerning attacks against leftists are true or whether his crime was that he was a friend of Grivas. He will be honoured by some, criticised by others, like any person who has been a part of history. Those who honour him will at the end of the day have to explain why they classify him as a valuable hero and those who criticise him will have to explain what he did to justify their stance. But the discussion we ought to have as a society should go beyond Thasos Sofocleous, and touch on questions such as whether people who are not alive or who are considered heroes can be criticised for struggles that are considered epic, by people who some may consider heretical or even inhuman. Whether history can be the property of some. Whether the freedom of speech ends where national consciousness begins. Where are the lines ultimately drawn? Who draws them? When does a person have the right to walk free? Questions to which the answer should be obvious. But it is not. Quite simply because our issue is not Doros Polykarpou or Thasos Sofocleous. It is our allergic reaction to anything we do not embrace. To anything that stands in the way of our need to impose our own narrative.