What is the sound of one hand clapping?
by Kevin Murphy
Belarus, 2011. People in Minsk’s Oktyabr Square are protesting Alyaksandr Lukashenko, the country’s authoritarian president. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for nearly twenty years. His oppression is notorious — human rights violations; freedom of speech, press, religion, peaceful assembly are severely restricted by government interference.
Outgunned but not outfoxed, protesters take advantage of a brilliant idea: clapping as a form of protest. The applause rings far and wide, and for a wonderful, brief period the government actually believes approval ratings are climbing. Within weeks though, the true object of the applause becomes clear, and at subsequent public assemblies Lukashenko orders arrests, which government forces dutifully issue, handcuffing and dragging away hundreds of clapping Belarusian residents for acts of “hooliganism.”
Just imagine the number of blood vessels that Lukashenko popped when he realized that as long as clapping was associated with dissent, there was no way to tell whether the (no doubt enforced) applause at government events — parades, speeches, etc. — was actually a sign of protest!
All of this of course becomes a sensation, with media across the globe latching on to the story’s irony and the protester’s ability to issue a sly comeuppance in the face of oppression. The Economist sends a reporter to Minsk, as does the NY Times, BBC, et al. YouTube is crowded with videos of clapping protesters.
Then comes the really absurd stuff. A man with one arm is arrested for clapping. As Boing Boing reported last week,
… Once it became clear that clapping was dissent, clappers were rounded up. And like all thuggish regimes this one was not too particular about who it arrested. That included Konstantin Kaplin, who said he was convicted of “applauding in public” despite fairly conclusive evidence of innocence: he’s only got one arm. “The judge read out the charges [and] the police affirmed that I was applauding,” said the one-armed man. “The judge looked ashamed of herself,” he said, but imposed the fine anyway.
A journalist was also quoted as saying that a deaf-mute had been charged with “shouting antigovernment slogans,” but there was no independent confirmation of that.
You’re not alone if this strikes you as something that could come out of literature. Mikhail Bulgakov might have written a story like it, or even J.D. Salinger, whose 1953 collection Nine Stories used as its epigraph the Zen koan, “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Maybe the sound of one hand clapping is a metaphor for when oppressed people peacefully fight back against injustice …
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.