Words for Words

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

A week ago today, four men entered the offices of the Vanuatu Daily Post and attacked publisher Marc Neil-Jones, punching him hard enough to fracture his nose and then kicking him while he was down.

Asked about the assault, Neil-Jones half-smiled and described it in philosophical terms, suggesting that this kind of treatment comes with the territory. “This isn’t the first time this has happened to me,” he said, then added wryly, “of course, I’m older now than I was.”

Neil-Jones was beaten because his staff did their job, reporting on events and recording their views, for the public good and for posterity.

This column isn’t about the events that led to the attack. It’s not about prisons, politics or even publishers. This column is about getting results. It’s about resolving issues instead of exacerbating them.

Notwithstanding its reputation as a happy place, Vanuatu is no stranger to violence in day-to-day life. Many is the time an impatient and angry man engaged his fists before his mouth. As one contrite young man once explained, “I didn’t really want to fight, but my knuckles where itchy.” (Actually, ‘Hand blong mi i sikras.’)

Be that as it may, in all my years here, I’ve never heard of a chief clubbing someone on the head for speaking his mind in the nasara.

I don’t mean any disrespect to the true nakamals of Vanuatu, nor to those who preside over them. But I can think of nothing else that compares so closely to the role of the media as the village nasara. Our newspapers, TV and radio stations all exist to allow us a public platform to inform ourselves, to share our views and yes, even to disagree.

I’ve heard a lot of angry, impassioned – and sometimes careless – words spoken in the dozens of kastom meetings I’ve attended. Only once have I ever heard a chief raise his voice.

Even then, the issue was dealt with using words and words alone.

All of us here in Vanuatu, ni-Vanuatu and expat alike, would do well to learn from this example. If any one of us fails to venerate 3000 years of kastom, what claim can we make to wisdom of any kind?

Let’s ignore for a moment the specific events that led to this embarrassing loss of control. Enough of who said what to whom. The bottom line is this: This kind of violence serves no purpose and has no useful effect. No matter whether one man’s words caused another to be fired, beating him up isn’t going to get the job back. And it’s a poor way to exact payment for the loss.

Worse, it only confirms people’s worst suspicions about the perpetrators’ character.

An inconvenient but necessary aspect of democracy is that every single individual has the right to be wrong. Because we have freedom of speech, we have the right to say things that others might consider ill-advised. Every one of us has the right to say what we think, based on whatever insight we choose to apply. It’s an awkward, imperfect and often messy aspect of our society, but it lies at the core of our principles, at the core of kastom itself.

Winston Churchill famously said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms.” The amount of talk required to resolve an issue in the nakamal sometimes tries the patience of best of us. But nobody doubts its purpose.

As expressed in kastom, respect is not contingent on age, experience or factual correctness. True, it flourishes when the garden of wisdom is well-tended, but it is innate to each of us without precondition.

You can argue that professional journalists have an additional burden placed upon them when they offer news and opinion. We expect them to corroborate the information they receive, avoid unreliable sources and weigh their words. But here’s the thing: even if they don’t – even if the paper they publish is only good for lighting fires – even then, they still deserve the basic respect that we show to all human beings.

Words have consequences; there can be no doubt of that. And when they are published in the Vanuatu’s newspaper of record (such as it is), they take on additional weight. But when all is said and done, they are still words.

They deserve a response in kind. Whatever its purported shortcomings, the Daily Post does not failed to publish corrections, opposing opinions and even letters angrily denouncing stories published within its covers. No matter what we think about this particular pulpit, we cannot deny that it belongs to us all.

Let’s use it. If there was injustice done, if events were mis-reported or people mis-characterised, the remedy is clear. Just as the cure for a night of foolish drinking is the hair of the dog that bit you, the cure for foolish talk is more talk.

More wisdom, more measured tones, more patient explanation. Our chiefs have known this for millennia. It’s time that the rest of society’s leaders learned from them.