“Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Remember that one? In today’s world that saying would be considered the somewhat trite advice in our world of anti-bullying, anti-harassment and so forth, and not at all to say those are bad things, they were necessary things. The value of our words, the power words can have, is probably more significant today that it has probably ever been.
The Renaissance brought the Gutenberg Press, and mass production of the written word took shape. But the written word goes back farther still, into the early epochs of humanities renaissance, to the time of the Fertile Crescent, and the birth of a civilization that would change everything.
Over 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, which is present-day Iraq, the cuneiform script first emerged, ca 3200 BC.
Yet, even then, the words laid down were ones of calculations, of transactions of trade and of how much I owe you or you owe me, or accounts of the state, stamped in clay rectangles the size of your hand, and later baked and stored in large storehouses, or what one would now think of maybe akin to filing cabinets.
Those where what purpose the figures had, their most important function. Still the land was filled, as was every other land, even those who did not have writing yet, with orally told stories, or family traditions, of bits and bobs of wisdom, spells of healing, thinking, knowing, being, and fables to prescribe how to grow old, be young, be wise, be worthy, a leader, a friend, a neighbour. Spoken words were the power of the shaman, with memories etched inside them going way, way, far away and long ago sort of time.
“Our direct experience is necessarily subjective, necessarily relative to our own position or place in the midst of things, to our particular desires, tastes, and concerns. The everyday world in which we hunger and make love is hardly the mathematically determined “object” toward which the sciences direct themselves. Despite all the mechanical artifacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure it is not an inert or mechanical object but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses.”David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
In The Spell of the Sensuous Abrams details the transition from oral traditions to the written word. Of the diagraming of our surroundings, and the separation the written word had on the way that we now interact, see, know the world.
“A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And ‘making sense’ must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one’s felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.”[ IBID ]
We die for our words. We can incite violence with them, inspire, and speak of our desire, our truths, and sometimes lie through our teeth with them, towards whatever end it is that is desired.
Today, and since the election of Trump, words have divided a whole nation; or, in truth played on that division in order to widen that division. Pictures may speak thousands of words, yet, the saying of one word can change everything.
“In truth, the human experience of magic – our ancestral, animistic awareness of the world as alive and expressive – was never really lost. Our senses simply shifted their animistic participation from the depths of the surrounding landscape toward the letters written on pages and, today, on screens. Only thus could the letters begin to come alive and to speak. As a Zuni elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and abruptly hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the ostensibly “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless – as mysterious as a talking stone.”[ IBID ]
So that power of words is a changing and animate thing, and with our type, type, type, we see in headlines the power of them to change our world.
The death of one journalist, just one, has in the last few weeks galvanized the world, focused us on that death, and a recognition of the desire of some to silence some peoples words.
Certainly, I think that there is no other way to see Khashoggi’s death as an act of violence against the power of one man’s words, or a woman’s, as in the Saudi regime their power is stifled, and thus their words are as well silenced, muted by their veiled countenance.
And it was that stifling of words that Khashoggi’s own last words were used to express;
My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.October 17th, 2018 – By Jamal Khashoggi
Freedom of the Press is a hallmark of Democracy, as it is through the journalist that we are better able to understand our world and our place within it. Yet, and as he points out, it is also a force towards knowledge, and of informing others of the facts of some fairly mundane things, and how that knowledge can be better used to empower people.
Today I would wager that many still in the West have little appreciation of that freedom we have, and in many cases, we even believe it is secure from the sort of misinformation campaigns we see in places, such throughout the Arab World.
This would be naive, as today we are systematically throughout the West seeing the toppling of that freedom, are seeing it challenged day after day, for instance, on Twitter by a man considered a Leader of the Free World, telling his loyal minions lie after lie, with a forked tongue, as they slurp them up like some sort of greedy, slathering hoard, languishing in the mean-spirited intent of every utterance from his podium of discontent and division.
It is the idea that we are given what we need to know, and no more. That the multitudes are to be led, enslaved, and made to do what the great and noble leader desires, and not what the WE may desire. The democracy of for the people, by the people, are dangerous to the authoritarian, the despot, as the will of the people can be threatening. No, better it is to rock the boat and create wave after wave of misinformation, so in time the WE is so confused, and the truth so well hidden, that the only direction left is to that great and noble leader.
To this idea, I leave you with one final quote from Abram to consider.
“We align ourselves not with the ever-expanding human monoculture, nor with the abstract vision of a global economy, but with the far more sustainable prospect of a regionally diverse and interdependent web of largely self-sufficient communities – a multiplicity of technologically sophisticated, vernacular cultures tuned to the structure and pulse of particular places. We know well that if humankind is to flourish without destroying the living world that sustains us, then we must grow out of our adolescent aspiration to encompass and control all that is. Sooner or later, we know, our technological ambition will begin to scale itself down, allowing itself to be oriented by the distinct needs of specific bioregions. Sooner or later, that is, technological civilization will accept the invitation of gravity and settle back into the land, its political and economic structures diversifying into the varied contours and rhythms of a more-than-human earth.”[ IBID ]