Friday, August 16, 2013

Words matter

Yelena Isinbayeva, a world-class pole vaulter who happens to be Russian, was widely covered in the U.S. press for her remarks following a competition in Moscow recently. She defended Russia's law banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships".
“It’s unrespectful to our country,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”

...

“It’s my opinion also,” she said, adding: “You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

She added, “It comes from history.”

She apparently was speaking in English, a detail that might be relevant in that she now claims that her remarks might have been "misunderstood".
“English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday. What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests,” Isinbayeva said in a statement issued through local organizers of the world championships.

“I respect the views of my fellow athletes and let me state in the strongest terms that I am opposed to any discrimination against gay people.”

She wasn't misunderstood. She insisted on respect for host countries' laws: we got that. She simply seems to regret having said more than that.

She might have meant instead that she expressed herself poorly, but I find that difficult to believe. Her earlier statements were unambiguous and conveyed a consistent viewpoint. Her "clarification" seems to me nothing more than a clumsy effort to back-pedal in the face of international disapproval. She certainly didn't disavow her earlier remarks.

If she sincerely had trouble expressing herself, however, perhaps she (and others) should think about just how easily people can be misinterpreted. In particular, they should consider whether what they label "propaganda" might actually be expressions of identity — the voices of those who simply wish to live without lies and without fear. The voices of those who, right now, must live with both, thanks to the laws passed by their fearful and resentful countrymen.

Russians, of all people, ought to understand that you can't force everyone to march to the same tune. Didn't seventy years of brutal state dictatorship make that clear? Or did they learn the wrong lesson — that brutality is okay as long as it doesn't affect them?

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