a-vox. [a - L fr Gr, not: without; vox - L voice]. 1. n A person in Panem who is punished for a crime [usu., a crime against the state, e.g. treason] by cutting the tongue to disable speech, and condemned to a life of servitude. 2. v To silence opposition.In The Hunger Games, Panem is a country, founded in the ruins of North America, of twelve subservient Districts plus the Capitol that dominates and controls them. Of course, the Capitol tolerates no dissent. Every strategy employed by the Capitol to demoralize and control its people boils down to enforcing conformity by silencing the opposition. Where the control mechanisms – such as constant surveillance and keeping people starving and in bone-crushing poverty – fail to squelch dissenting voices and behavior, the Capitol either kills the offenders or makes them avoxes. Of the two choices, the fate of the avox is by far the most stunningly brutal penalty.
When the Capitol turns a person into an avox (“avoxes” them if you will), it not only destroys a voice, it tries to destroy the expressive power of silence.
Think about that idea for a moment.
This is, I think, the extreme end of a slippery slope that Collins wants us to see, and like all slippery slopes at their extreme, it ultimately contributes to the destruction of the dystopia. But it is also a critical piece of how the dystopia came to be. The novelist carefully lays the groundwork for our understanding in three early scenes.
At the reaping in Seam, after Katniss has volunteered to take her twelve-year-old sister’s place as tribute, the crowd response – expected to be applause and cheering if for no other reason than relief among those not doomed to be tributes – is a silent salute. We know enough by this point to know that constant surveillance is the norm, and any unexpected behavior can be viewed as aberrant and defiant. This scene is revisited aboard the “tribute train” on the way to the Capitol when Katniss, Peeta et al view TV reruns of the reaping “festivities” from that day. The rerun is accompanied by official commentators who apparently notice and have difficulty explaining the crowd’s action, resorting to generalizing that District 12 has always been backward, but aren’t their local customs charming?
Later, we meet our first avox in the Capitol, and learn that not only can they not speak, others must not speak to them except to give an order. Thus the squelch of a voice is complete.
The length of the road to Panem is inversely proportional to how far we are willing to go to silence opposition; are we even willing to attack silence itself?
I had just finished Mockingjay, book 3 of the trilogy, a few weeks ago when the news splashed that two female Democratic legislators in Michigan were silenced by the majority leadership; denied the right to speak on any issue before the Michigan House on its last day in session before summer recess. My immediate reaction should come as no surprise to you dear reader: Jeez, those women were avoxed.
Their offense? Using technical anatomical terms during a debate over the latest anti-abortion legislation, like “vagina,” as in “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no.”
Here’s my question: would the statement have been so offensive if, in the context of debating a law to license bone setting specialists outside regular medical practice, she had opposed the legislation saying: “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my fibula. But no means no.”
Trick question. Of course not.
I won’t recite the blather that was offered in justification for avoxing two representatives except to observe that excuses under the rubric of “maintaining decorum” basically admit that the problem was the substance rather than form of the remarks. The implied equivalence of a technical anatomical term with crude, demeaning slang terms for the same thing, takes false equivalency to new levels of absurdity. If the legislators’ anatomical references in debating the bill were offensive, was not the bill itself equally offensive for the same lack of decorum? Apparently not, since it was passed. In the world of false equivalencies that is the point, since it is the substance of these legislators’ opposition to anti-abortion legislation that the majority wanted to silence.
The avoxing of Michigan legislators lacked only the permanence of Panem’s avoxes. So far. Our concern at the moment has to be the instincts and thinking of members of the Michigan legislature when confronted by members who oppose their will. Their willingness to silence those whose very presence is required to give a constituency a voice in government is either unbelievably stupid or as evil and Panemian as one might expect to find in the real world.
Truthfully, it just doesn’t matter whether it is stupidity or evil because the effect is the same. Intent is a nicety of legal responsibility. The road to Panem is as easily paved with good intentions as with bad, a point Collins repeatedly makes when we meet other characters like Cinna, participants in the Games who seem to both care about the tributes and be discomforted by their role in it.
Michigan does not have a monopoly on silencing voices. In 2012 America, women’s voices are being silenced in media coverage of the elections and women’s health issues; just look at this graphic from 4thestate.net. It is immaterial whether we are driven to Panem by private media or a rogue state. The consequences are the same.
Purging voter rolls is another way to silence opposition, but you have to pay attention because this one is subtle. It is absolutely true that only citizens are entitled to vote. Although citizenship is a “technical” term if you will, it is reasonably well understood, an automatic incident to birth in the US and easy enough to obtain if you were not born in the US. To some degree we go on an honor system on this matter since we don’t issue national citizenship papers. But really, aren’t the vast majority of people living in this country born here anyway, making them citizens? I never understood this idea that non-citizens are voting in elections since I just don’t see the payoff for them. Conversely, to the extent a political decision specifically affects the lives of non-citizens (lets say, for example, on local issues which are the real meat and potatoes of living politics anyway), why are we so disinterested in their views? Non-citizens pay taxes in various forms and are, like it or not, contributing to the common good.
Governor Rick Scott of Florida thinks that flushing out these non-citizen voters is as simple as cross-referencing voting records with DMV records. Huh? Other than finding people who have moved but not changed their voter registration, what is that going to accomplish? Well, you know, its in the names. We all know that in a country created whole cloth out of an immigrant population, and fed with successive waves of immigration, you can tell who does not belong here by their name. Really.
Thankfully, county election officials in Florida do not see the world through such a simple lens and are not entirely cooperating with the State. Indeed, the results so far are 100 people removed from the rolls and 500 people established their citizenship. So, the incompetence of Rick Scott in not realizing he needed to stack the deck at the county level first saves the day. For now. Think about how this would be playing out if he’d dealt with county election officials first. When you are relying on incompetence to prevent the trip to Panem, you only lay the paving for the next leg.
Voting, the formal way to express approval or disapproval of the government in a democracy, is all about letting voices be heard. It is also one place where silence is routinely understood to be an expression. Expressive silence occurs when someone who is entitled to vote declines to do so. Interpretation of that silence can be tricky, but whether it means 1) I don’t see a meaningful choice; 2) I accept the choice I think the majority is going to make; 3) I don’t see any value in this system; or 4) I can’t afford the time to go vote, there is meaning in that silence. Meaning that tells us what is and is not working, who is in pain and what we have to think about to make things better. When the right of voters to speak is under wholesale attack, silence becomes meaningless because is ceases to be a choice.
We have two populations of avoxes in the United States: we call them felons and illegal aliens. We chose our terminology very carefully: if they are a felon, they committed a crime; if they are “illegal,” they also committed a crime. Therefore we can “punish” them by avoxing. With respect to illegal aliens, the Rick Scotts of this world are determined to cut their tongues and see to it that the rest of us speak to them only to order our grass cut or our house painted. Never mind that this population does not have a history of speaking out; that they are well and truly a suppressed group. The risk of dissent and unrest is so unacceptable that we must preemptively ensure that it never happens. With respect to felons: well, they are felons, and rehabilitation is the dream of fools, right?
By denying people the right to vote, by denying the right to register a political opinion in the only fashion readily available to most, we declare them unworthy of participation in society. We banish them to a silent world of subservience. We already think in this county that avoxing, sans the tongue cutting, is an acceptable form of punishment for ordinary and even slight transgressions; in a world where resistance by the medical profession cannot stop a killing by lethal injection, how big a step it is to cutting tongues?
President Obama’s recent action to protect illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children is a step in the right direction that means at least some will have a chance to escape their avox fate. But not all.
The deeper problem within our culture is our way of justifying actions by ascribing fault, as if that judgement is the end of the discussion. Especially in recent times it seems that assigning fault and blame, or finding blamelessness, is utterly essential in political discourse. More importantly, it is a universal justification for political acts. I bring this up because President Obama offered the immigrant children’s lack of fault in the matter as justification for his orders. As a Progressive I am happy to get the right result by whatever means I can; as a writer and thinker I recognize the perils of the President’s stated reasoning.
In Panem, the people are subjected to a reading of the Treaty of Treason each year as part of the reaping ceremony, to remind them that their misery is all their fault. In America, fault is the altar upon which dissent is silenced in the name of public good; rarely does a political discussion continue substantively once blame or blamelessness has been assigned.
Fault relieves us of the necessity to examine the morality and propriety of our actions. But just as ends do not necessarily justify means, our actions must be scrutinized in a context that transcends the excuses and focuses on the act itself. So long as we accept even conceptually that silencing a person we deem undesirable in some way can be acceptable under some circumstance, then we are on the road to Panem and only the distance remains to be determined.
This the second installment of an occasional series inspired by The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ devastatingly brilliant Young Adult trilogy about a fictional place not far in our future. Ms. Collins has reminded me, and I hope others, that difference between freedom and tyranny is more than just a matter of form. I hope in this series to try to detect the telltale signs showing where our path is taking us and talk about why we should be afraid if we cannot find the way or the will to change course. The first installment can be read here. All references are to the books not the movie which this writer has not yet seen.