12.21.2004

The Student and the Priest: An Allegory

[Unable to precisely express my frustration at recent events in England, as well as the discussions that have followed in the press and on the Internet, I decided to write try my hand at a short story. It's inspired by the recent events, but it isn't necessarily about those events... It is a work in progress. I would welcome any comments or feedback by email.]

The Student and the Priest: An Allegory

“I want you to start speaking our language,” she said.

“But I don't know our language,” I said. “I only know this language.”

“Which language?”

“The one we're speaking right now.”

“But how can you not know the other language? How can you be who you are and not know it?”

“They don't speak it here.”

It was too early in the morning to be arguing this with her. I went back to my cereal, and then left breakfast early to go to University. On the way I saw signs pasted to telephone poles, and I saw protesters with posters shouting in the main square. There was a controversy over an Artist who had made a Statement.

On the way to class, I ran into Priest. Everyone calls him Priest -– he wants to be a Priest -– but really he isn't one. He had been rejected by the old Priests because of his voice. We talked before class.

“Are you going to the protest?” he asked me.

“What are they protesting?” I said.

“They're protesting the Statement made by the Artist. It was offensive.”

“But what did the Artist say?”

“She said we're intolerant.”

“Isn't it possible she's right?”

“It doesn't matter whether it's true, it's offensive. And we have a right to Protest her right to make Statements. It's Multiculturalism; it's the Law. She can't use that kind of language.”

Class started when the Professor started to talk. He was a kindly gentleman; he always wore sweaters, jeans, and running shoes. He said there would be a discussion of the Controversy in class today instead of the usual discussion. He started to speak passionately of the Controversy, of the need for tolerance for dissenting opinions. He talked about the Community, and the other Communities. He said he thought this Community was good, it was smart, and it knew how to adapt. It was the other Community that was full of ignorance and intolerance. He hoped this wasn't the beginning of a slide. He talked about liberalism, and freedom of speech, and how those people don't seem to know about these things: “They need to be taught the language of liberty.”

What did this mean? Class was over before discussion of this point could begin. We got up. No one said anything. The Professor mumbled some apology about time, and looked down at his notebook.

In the hallway, Priest said he was going to the protest. I told him I would tag along. I wanted to see.

The Protest was in the center of town, in the place where cars can't go. It was at night a desolate place, flooded garbage and men driving electric garbage-collecting mini-cars collecting up the debris. But in the daytime thousands of people walked there, people in business suits, with lots of money. When we reached we saw the senior priest standing with a megaphone. He was talking about multiculturalism, about racism, about the “politics of representation in an era of multinational capitalism.” He was using the kind of language they use in the University.

“There he is,” Priest said. “The man who rejected me.”

“Yes, what a damn hypocrite,” I said.

“He's not a hypocrite. I have great respect for him – in fact, he was right to reject me, after what I said at the Temple.” Priest was deeply ashamed of his failure at the Temple, even though by all accounts what happened wasn't his fault. And what he said now he didn't mean. His hands were shaking, and there was something a little scary in his voice. He still hated the Old Priest.

“Don't talk bollocks,” I said. But Priest was transfixed by the huge crowd in the Square, and by the thundering voice of the Old Priest.

“We don't want censorship, we want responsibility!” He shouted. The crowd cheered. “We are sick of the racist establishment's irresponsibility! This is a racist play by a racist Artist!”

“Wait a minute,” I whispered. “Did he say 'racism'? How could the Artist be racist?”

“What do you mean?” said Priest.

“The Artist can't be a racist because she is... one of us.”

“How can you say that? After what she said? After the language she used?”

The old Priest was yelling at the top of his lungs.

“The Artist has committed blasphemy! It the police won't arrest the Artist, then we will!” The crowd roared. The old Priest raised his arm high in the air. “We are the people! We are the majority! We reject the language that is used against us!”

Just then there was a beeping noise, and the pillars around the square began to drop down into the pavement, the way they do when the garbage mini-cars come through. But today there were police mini-cars, dozens of them, and as the old Priest spoke they slowly entered the square, lined up in a circle around us, and then stopped. The cars had dark reflective glass for windows, so all you could see when you looked at them was yourself. And dozens of police emerged from a gigantic police bus two blocks away, with clubs in hand and dark sunglasses.

Old Priest did not seem to have noticed the cops. He had even started speaking the other language, the one that was illegal. This drove some members in the crowd to a consenting fury. Others were a little confused; they, like me, didn't know the other language. Three helmeted policemen approached the place where Old Priest was standing.

“Don't let them stop us!” He said. “Don't let them suppress our right to free speech!” The crowd, shocked at what was happening, surged and went for the police. But then the police mini-cars started to move in, packing the crowd in a tight circle. The windows of the mini-cars opened, and arms bearing clubs emerged. Some people began to panic. Others brought out cameras to film what was happening. But the police were able to isolate Old Priest, and get him into handcuffs. His megaphone fell to the ground. The crowd, blocked off and frustrated, began to throw things at the police. The police began to club protesters, handcuff them, and drag them to the large police van on the main street.

I was watching what was happening to Old Priest, so I didn't see when Priest left my side. But then I spotted him across the square. He had managed to get to where Old Priest had been standing. He was holding the megaphone. His eyes were closed. He was standing by himself, muttering something into the megaphone. At first he was inaudible. But then his voice began to rise, and I thought I heard him say:

“You won't allow me to say this! I'm not allowed to say this! I'm not allowed to say this!”

The members of the crowd who heard him thought he was speaking against the Old Priest, and some of them turned away from the cops and towards him. The police thought he speaking against the Law, and a car with open windows started to move towards him from the other side.

I myself wasn't quite sure what he meant, or if he had even said what I thought he'd said. Before I could hear it again, something from the crowd flew through the air and hit him on the side of his head. And my friend Priest fell, and was overtaken by the shouts, fists, and clubs, of the warring parties in the square.

The next time I saw Priest was in Prison. I had dropped out of the University, tired of listening to Professors lecture me on the meaning of my liberty. I was no longer interested in being a Student. Priest had, I noticed, shaved his head -- or perhaps it had been shaved for him? For a moment we sat staring at each other through the glass. Neither of us knew what to say; it seemed we had lost our language. But then he spoke: he said he could no longer think of being a priest after hearing Old Priest in the Square, using that language. He said he thought it was shameful, it was violent, it was against everything he believed. I told him he sounded like the Artist. He said no, "I'm not an artist, I'm not anything."

All he wanted to be was what he already was, namely, a person whose tongue was broken, by the weight of what he was forbidden to say.