Words, Words, Words.

Posted by admin on October 2, 2017 in The Soapbox |
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I don’t play bar games very often. I prefer steel tip darts to soft tip, but don’t like trying to keep score. I love the idea of pool, but I never paid much attention in math class to things that seem to be important in the game, namely geometry and physics.

This is not surprising, given that I can’t even add the tip to the bill without using a calculator. I famously failed this last Friday, having to scratch out the number twice before getting it right.

It’s not that I’m stupid or that I don’t like the idea of math. I suppose it has its place in our world. I hear there are even people who get degrees in mathematics, but I still have no idea why.

It’s a writer’s lot, I suppose. You can’t be good at everything and I am told that my gift is writing, even though I would still really like to be an astronaut, but I hear they require math so that has always been a non-starter.

Of course, writing has its own mathematics, of sorts. No, it’s not 1+1=2, because in writing, even this simple equation doesn’t have to really add up to what it says on some math teacher’s chalkboard. If it did, we wouldn’t have any fiction, because as we all know, in fictional relationships 1+1 can equal 3, which makes for a very interesting plot twist.

It’s times like this that I am reminded that my craft demands as much work as math. Like physics, writing can have gravity, velocity, and weight. It can also have geometry: angles and intersections, for instance.

As a words guy, I understand this all too well. I can eviscerate someone with words, to echo the Chaucer character in Knight’s Tale, leaving them naked for eternity on the pages I write.

Anyone can do this to one degree or another. Words are powerful things. When it was said “the pen is mightier than the sword,” believe me, it’s true. I have caused others to crumble in fear, pain, and sorrow with the rapier wit I was born (and cursed) with. I can drop them to the ground in just a few carefully phrased sentences no matter how tall and mighty they think they are. I can also disarm their anger with a carefully delivered jest or something that was self-deprecating, executed with master craftsman accuracy and timing.

I suppose that’s why it alarms me so that we are choosing to let this art go. In a world of Twitter and texting, words are tossed about without understanding their nuances or their inherent and often lasting power.

Dangerously, we are also casting aside our common understanding and agreements about what words or even a single word actually means. You can blame the “Fake News” for that or the current president if you’d like, but I think it’s our own laziness and self-absorption that is to blame, for we ultimately have the power to hold ourselves and others accountable for the language we use.

I admit that I was taken by a statement Timothy Snyder made as of late. He has written a book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. I haven’t read it yet, but in an interview he said, and I will paraphrase:

“Without agreed upon language there can be no shared truths. Without shared truths, democracy fails.”

See the problem?

Before social media, we as a society made a collective decision to care about language. We came to a common understanding of terminology, issues, and ideas through a carefully designed dialogue between two or more people. We didn’t have a technology where we could all babble and rant endlessly without dialogue. In social media, there is no give and take as there was in the decades and centuries before.

In social media, there is no give and take as there was in the decades and centuries before. No one is controlling the media anymore. But instead of finding enlightenment through the sharing of a common language and listening to opposing views openly, we have retreated into our own Disneylands.

Rather than endure the often painful exercise of a logical progression of thought and persuasion through the presentation of facts, we have chosen instead to make our own Happiest Place on Earth where only those who have the same views are allowed to play. After they have all been left in, we close and lock the gates and enjoy our safe world where everything and everyone is happy, happy, joy, joy.

In the process, we lose our common language. We lose the meaning of words. We no longer believe simple facts, such as the sky being blue or the earth being round because we have isolated ourselves to the point where facts take on a life of their own because there’s no one there to scream bullshit!

As we have learned in the mental health world, a person who retreats from the world in which he or she lives will become mentally ill. Lock a seemingly sane person up in a mental institution and he will go nuts because his only support group is composed of other residents and eventually, they will become his North Star.

We must fight to keep our language common. We must resist the efforts of loony politicians who want to twist us in the wind with their own word choices. We must learn to listen to one another and agree to a common set of definitions about what is decent, what is just, what is right and what is wrong.

It shouldn’t be that hard. Most of us were raised by good parents who taught us the values and morals we live by. They also taught us the language of love and acceptance, not of hatred and division.

Me? I am lucky. I still love words. I still regularly look up their definitions to find out what they really mean and obsess about their structure, form, and origins. I write about these things – the difference between patriotism and nationalism, for instance – because they matter to us all.

As a writer, I’m not about to give up and join the crowd. I don’t Tweet because ideas can’t adequately be expressed in 144 characters. Ideas need the word equivalent of Montana, where the open spaces allow the words to breathe freely so that we can come to appreciate the tremendous power and weight they have once again.

Don’t surrender your own power to others when it comes to words. Use them wisely, choose them deliberately, exercise your vocabulary, and most important, use words to build bridges, not chasms. Because if we don’t build a common truth together, our democracy will wither and die in a sea of separation and societal malaise.

In the Emerald City, choosing his words oh, so wisely,

  • Robb

Oh, and if you need some refreshers, here’s a great resource.

 

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