Back to top

COLUMN: Words

“... Thinking your mind was my own, in a dream --

What would you wonder and how would it seem?

Living in castles a bit at a time, the King started laughing and talking in rhyme.

Singing words, words... between the lines of age.”   Neil Young, “Words,” Harvest

 

“Though it all may be One / in the Higher Eye.

Down here where we live / It is two.

I to my side / call the meek and the mild

You to your side / call the Word.

By virtue of suffering / I claim to have won.

You claim / to have never been heard.  ...

I say that you shouldn’t you couldn’t you can’t.

You say you must and you will. ...

c’mon baby -- Give me a kiss,

Stop writing / everything down.”   Leonard Cohen, “Different Sides,” Old Ideas

The writer, and the void into which words go

Why do people put words to paper, or into any other public medium? Why does a person expose themselves to the public by making their thoughts open to hear or read? What happens when words go out, the speaker never knowing who heard them? If you, reader, also write for a public – how’s that working out for you?

Today, more people than ever before in all history, make their thoughts public. I am obviously one; you are reading some of mine. But the internet and cellphones, with websites, email, blogs, home-made videos, social media and so forth, has magnified the phenomenon beyond recognition. Anyone seems able to put their words in front of strangers... and suffer unpredictable consequences when their audience has reactions, some of them responding in ways no one would ever invite.

Power and Individuals

I will answer one of my questions briefly now. Why do people publish? Because words are power. The people who have ruled over public communication for millennia were the people of greatest power, throughout recorded history. To use words for your own purpose, to express your thought, perhaps express your “self,” is power. People know this almost by instinct; certainly they learn it as they grow, in any culture. Powerful people measure their power by their control of communications and publicity, among other metrics.

I am not referring in the previous paragraph to writing that is purely informational and/or educational; this sort of communication is purposeful, mainly concerned with transmission of fact from one mind to another. Once upon a time, we all knew what was meant when someone referred to “the news” and “the facts”; we had a consensus about truth. No longer is this case, and it needs explanation, a topic to which I will come later.

Neither am I referring just yet to writing fiction, for which the reasons – we anticipate and assume – have to do with creativity, and perhaps with earning. Creative writing and informational communication is not my focus. I will note in passing that there are more professional writers today who try to earn from publishing their words, than had existed in all history previous to the twentieth century. This includes creative writers, journalists, and textbook writers.

I am now referring to communication that is simply one person expressing an opinion, observation, criticism, analysis, interpretation, appreciation, attack, or rant. I am thinking of the kind of writing I do here inThe Arc, or the kind of programming I offer on my radio show,The History Hour. Thoughts, not facts.

The much-increased opportunity, capacity, technological possibility, and freedom, to express one’s words is democratization. The demos, people of no expertise nor status in their society but by far the majority, now publish profusely. Expressing their thoughts is a new power. It is wonderful, for many individuals, to experience this potent ability to be heard. The new technologies of the last two decades enable us to be heard. Who is listening? The void. We know very few of the people who receive us.

The modern societies whose people are free to speak and publish, to consume news and opinion from an array of sources, are democracies. The number of citizens in democracies is small as a fraction of earth’s population. Once again, with speech as with other measures of liberty, where you live, and when you lived, determines whether you are/ were free. In the past, there were far fewer people than now in free societies, who lived unafraid of consequences if they voiced outlawed expressions. Shakespeare gave us the memorable phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” yet he obeyed the royal authorities who could force his theatre to close when they warned him about infringing laws limiting what could be said in public. Free speech and free media are novelties in history, and rare in much of humanity’s world.

How is the immense modern growth, this remarkable increase in the publicity available for any individual’s thinking, changing us? How is it working out for humanity? I will not reach any conclusive end in exploring these issues.

On balance, are words helping us go forward to a recognizably improved human world? Maybe that is not a question that engages others, but it fascinates me.

I begin with reflections about words and writing, for historical context.

Wielding word, wielding power

Back in the mist of prehistoric time, before Agriculture, the State, and urban Civilization, leadership of the “big man” was established first by one individual among a crowd of other men, using his physical prowess to fight and defeat the men who would be his band of retainers. His mind had to be possessed of some qualities also – brute strength alone, his victory in single combat, was never sufficient to make men follow. Among a leader’s mental skills the ability to use words well was significant.  He had to persuade as well as enforce. His loyal followers had to feel confident in his skills. His judgment had to be proven by smart decisions.

Religious belief was an instrument of his power, and thus, priesthoods evolved; so did a caste or class of praise-singers, the kind of men who spoke well about battles and hunts and other deeds of lordly men, above the common sort. Wherever there were “nobles” there were their cultural hangers-on to groom noble egos.

But I refer readers to specialist studies in anthropology and prehistory to probe more deeply into the cultural evolution of political leadership. I also recommend most highly a novel by Cecelia Holland, Pillars of the Sky, for a very plausible scenario of prehistoric politics and sociology.

Leadership is not a simple phenomenon to explain, one quickly appreciates once you delve into the research. Leaders within democracy are complicated individuals, more often than not; their challenges are more complex than dictators face, for a leader of a democracy must respect liberties of the people.

The powers who rule we humans, invariably want to control our human words; they know words matter, and autocracy and tyranny have always been vigilant against liberty of expression. Censorship of speech, print, the internet and other media, is a constant feature of dictatorship and totalitarian rule. Punishment of communication banned by rulers is swift and often ruthless. For many people, escape to another nation is realistically their only hope for an improvement in their liberty of person and of action.

If our rulers act like words and ideas matter, one should believe them: they know how to exercise power, and they are correct in fearing free expression.  They do not desire that we, the ruled, should know what the ruler wants kept silent, secret, and unpublished. Keeping the ruled in ignorance is better for the ruler much of the time. Or, in the words of an historian of religion:

“... the powerful often have a lot to hide, and they strive to regulate the right to silence. Power is often sustained by distortions of truth or reality, particularly when power takes the form of claiming a monopoly on truth.” (Diarmuid MacCulloch)

I will repeat my comment from my introduction: we live in a unique historical moment when multitudes of people now have power to publish their thoughts, thanks to new technologies. But human rulers have not abandoned their intent to control communications as thoroughly as they have in past ages.

When people who were formerly silenced find a voice and a forum to make their truths known, they are empowered if they are believed. When such truths are supported by the mass audience of a democracy, mighty changes can ensue. One hopes that movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are powerful in this manner. The downside might be that prominent people are not in truth guilty of the crime or immorality they are accused of; reputations and lives can be ruined by lies.  As I write this, the leader of Canada’s BQ party is facing down such a threat.

(see  https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/bloc-quebecois-leader-blanchet-denies-sexual-assault-allegations  )

Scripture and spiritual pursuit

From the Chinese classic, the Tao Teh Ching: “The word that is spoken is not thetrue Tao”  and,  “When there are names, it is time to stop. There are already enough words.”

From the Jewish Tanakh:  “In the beginning... God said...”

From the Christian Gospel:  “In the beginning was the Word...”

from the Muslim Q’uran: “Our messengers indeed came to Abraham bearing good news.”

Ancient peoples believed a word had power. That made sense. A word was a human thing, no other creatures had words. Was the word the thing itself?  Seom humans thought names were powers, and if one knew the true name, one had power over the thing; this was a first principle of magic. Therefore, no human could say the name of the one god who was above all, and the scripture of the ancient Israelites, among others, used a substitute word for God, not the True Name.

(An interesting aside: the word “gospel” is from Old Anglo Saxon, god spell, good story, news; “spell” also has the meaning of magic-making words.)

In modern free societies, words still have a power over us. The belief in the power of words spoken as spells and incantations to magic effect, we moderns like to call “irrational superstition;” that is the Present judging the Past, and I reject it. Rational modern Catholic Christians believe a priest changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by saying words – the technical term is “transubstantiation.” Muslims are convinced the Q’uran must be heard chanted in Arabic for its effect as the word of Allah to be properly comprehended.

People routinely swear oaths in court as legal procedure, to try and ensure truthfulness. We still desire that our friends be true to their word.

It is not my intent to unpack a “history of civilization” or social and cultural evolution, but I will refer readers to Dr. Donald Merlin for such research. My point here is simply that power over scripts and words, and power over other people, were intimately linked from a very early time.

We have human art from times before the ice ages, and it stands to reason that eloquent words and material artforms would  have been evolved side by side. Long after art came script, the use of visible symbol to signify word.

Pictographs and hieroglyphs can be seen to be attempts to use a picture as a word. The Chinese glyph for Tao, “way”, has a foot and a ladder, abstract but recognizably visible. A rune in the ancient script of the Nordic folk is called “thorn” and is a simple vertical line, with triangular-thorn shape to one side as on a branch; “cattle” looks like a deer antler. One gets the idea quickly.

(Chinese is significantly unlike European scripts; our words are made with separate alphabetic letters, arranged into phonemes, and combined into distinct separate words, whereas Chinese has an immense number of glyphs that encode concepts communicating meaning as much by what other glyphs accompany it as by one single definition. Translations of Chinese texts like the Tao into English present huge challenges, I have discovered as I read that classic over the years. Egyptian hieroglyphs were much like Chinese, whole-concept rather than syllables that form words.)

Politics and Religion, State and Temple

The first use of cuneiform script was lists, as in records of harvests. The second use was rulers’ boasts. The third, justifications for ruling other people in the name of deities.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphs are the oldest known scripts, from Sumeria and Egypt, respectively. Counting and listing harvest figures were very early applications of the first writing systems. Next came the ritual lists of great autocrats like Sargon the Great of Akkadia, telling the world in stone of his conquests. Pharaohs and Assyrian great kings and Persian Lords of the Earth all bragged in stone.

The narratives of gods and their relations with mortals went hand-in-hand with rulers’ bragging. A king ruled because the all-powerful deities desired him to do so. Gilgamesh, the lugal of Erech (Uruk), was able to speak with gods and goddesses, and enter their realms. Cyrus, first world-emperor of the Persian realm, was called messiah by a great Israelite prophet, a word special to the King of Israel, David. Alexander the Great, when he became Pharaoh by conquest, visited an oracle deep in the Egyptian desert and learned that his father was the greatest god (as his hero Achilles was son of that god).

Roman power was not identified as incarnate in one great king when republican Rome conquered its empire, but resided in a Senate and magistrates. Julius Caesar, so clearly favoured by fortune in his career of conquest and politics, was elevated by his adopted son to be a god, an affront to republican ethics. Eventually all Roman emperors were declared to be gods, at first only after their death, then during their lifetime; Jews and Christians refused to worship this divine Roman emperor in ways that pagans would, and much terror for them resulted.

Then Christianity won the Imperial throne to its own faith community, and the Empire became a terror to pagans, heretics, and Jews when State power was applied to the task of forcing one religion and one church upon all its subjects. When the Empire fell, an imperial papacy took its place, and continued to force conversions.

All this history, the record of power and belief, was only made possible by script and scripture. What is history? What the historians say it is ...

Clerks and Intellectuals

Rulers, such as the Pharaoh of Egypt or the Lugal of Erech, were too elevated from ordinary humans to dirty their hands with a stylus or chisel to write script. Clerks did that, under orders; the orders came from the ruler or the priests of the ruler’s cultic and sacrificial system. Literacy was power, but it was at the command of men who were powerful because of force, not because of persuasion. Society was first stratified in layers, with power up the scale among the few, and weakness down at the base among the many, before there were specialized castes of clerks and priests.

Rulers knew the power of the medium of script, and made sure what was published made them appear in the best possible light. I have already made a quick survey of how rulers laid claim to being themselves gods or at least the chosen agent of one god. From the earliest times to the present, political and juridical power and the capacity to control what the public might hear and read were found in the same people. The State is an old invention of humanity, coming later than agriculture in our prehistory but predating many other human ideas such as freedom and rights.

One would like to know, at what long-ago stage of human history did “eloquent speech” become a talent that powerful rulers needed to harness? When did it become very important to a lord that he, or one of his loyal retainers, perhaps a religious authority/shaman/prophet, be able to sway followers with ideas? How soon in our history did homo sapiens become susceptible to the spell that words cast over the human mind? Again, Donald Merlin is worthy of investigation, and Robert Bellah, sociologist of religion.

Anyone who’s experienced the feeling of communion with a crowd at a rock concert or political rally – I am thinking Mick Jagger or Dr. Martin Luther King – knows the magic of one person up on a stage can literally cast a spell over us with words, momentarily imbuing us with a miasmic sense of power united in the mass. Early homo sapiens were susceptible to this when language was still a relatively new thing, and literacy non-existent.

Rulers are rightly wary of this phenomenon of words that set humans afire, “enspelling minds” and “enthralling emotions”. Religious emotion is particularly motivating, as historians of the Crusades, the Reformation, and the jihad can attest. Nationalism as ideology is modern religion; the Nazis, Fascists, and Bolsheviks used it ruthlessly in recent history. But, in the present, citizens in modern democracies may have attained a level of distrust of politicians that renders political words less powerful to move masses. We moderns are not galvanized to action by inspiring words in the manner of earlier subjects and constituencies, or so it appears to me.

Words and post-modern fact

What is appropriate now is a discussion of modern leaders in democracy, and their relationship to truthful and factual words. A supreme political leader also has relationships to certain people in modern society who supposedly establish truth and face: “intelligence gatherers” to report on secrets, military professionals to advise on war, experts in various fields of science, technology, economy, the professional journalists who report all varieties of news, the people who understand most profoundly the operations and work of politics, Constitutions and law, and the philosophers whom we consult for the very meaning of “truth.” The political leader in a democracy is not a polymath like Da Vinci, talented in a hundred fields, but a person who can use information to make decisions. (“I’m The Decider,” George W. Bush declared.) Does true fact inform the decision of a ruler?

I am by education one who respects expertise, but in 2020 there is observable a new phenomenon in the realm of public affairs – mass rejection of institutional authority and knowledgeable opinion. The pandemic has made this abundantly, sadly, clear.

Expertise has been scorned by large numbers of Americans who disbelieve in the medical and scientific proofs that the virus is deadly and serious. In democracies, the people who have chosen their leader by means of elections also claim a role in the establishment/ proof/ verification of what is true and accepted as truth.

Anne Applebaum, a respected journalist at The Atlantic magazine, put it this way, referring to Trump’s words after his inauguration: “... [he] launched his first assault on fact-based reality, a long-undervalued component of the American political system. We are not theocracy or a monarchy that accepts the word of the leader or the priesthood as law. We are a democracy that debates facts, seeks to understand problems, and then legislates solutions, all in accordance with a set of rules.” She has nicely, concisely, summarized a complicated situation involving reality, truth, democratic rule, and public process to apply fact for legislative and legal activity.

But fact-based reality is not what it used to be in our post-modern condition. People now have a very exalted opinion of their own infallible sense of what is fact, abetted by our culture’s hypertrophied individualism. It is the dark side of freedom to think. I have written  in previous columns about individualism and the post-modern condition. I refer readers to essays by Adrian Pabst on Western liberalism today.

Words run Riot

The people living in democracy are the very individuals I spoke of when I said that individuals now enjoy a new power, the power to make public their expression of thoughts and opinions. The explosion of words into the public sphere is a completely new thing. One hopes people want to express truth, not just opinion.

So here and now I will try to answer another of my introductory questions: is it working out well for humanity, this power of masses of people to make their expressions so public?

First, it seems obvious that the massive quantity of expression now available means  that words that might be valuable will be lost in the cacophony of too many voices. No one can read everything being published on specific topics, and academics are specialized to an extreme degree into tiny sub-genres of subjects so they may feel they can keep up in their fields. The rest of us are never going to be sure we have seen writing or heard comment we would desire to know;  there is too much. And I am not even thinking of what is said in languages other than English!

Secondly, it is obvious too that there are words of no worthy quality that will nevertheless enjoy tremendous publicity and momentary currency, like a tweet from a celebrity. The words of an uneducated, hardly-articulate, primitively-literate, and undisciplined mind are simply not very likely to produce lucid, valuable expression. That is not snobbery, that is what one would expect from such a complex, sophisticated phenomenon as language. It requires clear thought, appropriate expression, intelligible grammar,  wide vocabulary, and some intelligent contemplation of life experience, skilfully combined in the activity we call writing and public speech, to merit my attention. But I lack effective filters to keep a heap of trash out of what comes to my eyes and ears, and I have to winnow constantly.

Lastly, it is becoming apparent that if democracies cannot operate with fact in the manner Applebaum summarized, we are all going to drown in a sea of opinion. To my mind, and others’ too, the uninformed and uneducated electorate is a citizenry of limited capacity for self-rule. What to do about that? I give the classical liberal response: education, culture, and quality childhood foundations. Without these ingredients, democracy and the open society are not going to produce good results.

Silence, a power equal to noisy words?

“Experience has taught me the pleasing and edifying truth that silence may be positive as well as negative... I explore the silences which may be more than mere absence...” Diarmuid MacCulloch

Saying nothing when this is the best, highest, wisest course, is rare among humans. I know I have not got the capacity for good judgment in this regard, all too often.  And now, with so many humans experiencing the heady freedom to publish their thoughts, few of them feel inclined to be told to discipline their expressions. I intuit we will go through a period, perhaps a long one, of an over-supply of published words from a multitude of minds. I have no clue what this will signify for the human social, political, and cultural future. One can only hope the species will adapt.

Conclusions

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” -- St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:1)

The apostle speaks a truth I want to drive home: intention is paramount in communication, and makes us all dependent on the good will of communicators.

Socrates is supposed to have instructed his adherents in a threefold test of what it means to speak with integrity. He asked a man, bursting to tell Socrates some bit of gossip: “Is what you are about to say true – are you certain? Is it good for the hearer to know, and is your intent to do good? And is the information or story valuable?”

The good, the true, and the valuable... the threefold test of what is worth making public. We are all accountable for this. We are all at the mercy of people who do not discipline themselves with this standard, and at the mercy of what masses of people will do when they react to what they hear or read.