Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pen or the sword? Part I

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”  An archaic idea in this modern world?

Some days I have to acknowledge that here in modern America words no longer are powerful enough to bring about peace between individuals, groups, or nations.  Violence is swifter and more defining. Yet violence never brings light to a situation, only more darkness. And violence leads to more violence.

Guns are plentiful, and so are words.

Has there ever been a time when so many words (or symbols for words) were entered into keypads and transmitted electronically to thousands of owners of other keypads to be hastily scanned and sent into oblivion?  What is their lasting effect? I wonder. 

Facebook, the darling of millions, is something I scroll down quickly, looking for something personal, significant.  But too often it seems that the entry was quickly copied, pasted and then posted. Would incessant Facebook and Twitter enthusiasts know how to have a face-to-face meaningful conversation with another person? Even attempt peace by negotiation?

While Facebook and Twitter are thriving, newspapers, once the most powerful conveyers of words, are struggling to survive.  The pages of my morning paper is getting tissue thin, curling at once on being opened--to save money. And growing smaller (except for sports pages) while costing more.

Magazines, once the heavy hitters in the arena of words, are in the same survival mode because people don’t have time for anything longer than  thirty seconds in reading time. So they’re being downsized, merging, folding, waving good-bye. 

And book publishing? It was with sorrow that I heard that another book publisher with Anabaptist connections had declared bankruptcy before Christmas – Good Books.

Add bookstores, also word people, to the same group struggling to stay afloat. 

Where words are most popular these days is in advertising, all forms, especially  TV commercials and mailings.   I throw away all kinds of “buy me” or “give me” come-ons. Junk mail, otherwise known as marketing, fills garbage trucks. 

Yet nothing seems more vapid than computerized mailings, churned out week after week. I see it filling trash cans in our apartment building, unopened, because the words are empty.  Every entity, whether for profit or not-for-profit, engages in this all-out effort to find the right words to persuade the reader or listener to let go of their money. 

Words, too,too  many empty words. 

At one time governments feared the words of poets, words that might be right for the times, words that might be true words, speaking to truth, bringing light, revealing weakness and rottenness. 

Writers like the Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn were imprisoned in gulags because of the truth of their words.  More recently I heard that deceased folk singer Pete Seeger, peace activist, was attacked as a communist and banned from television for more than decade because people in power feared his words.

Words of writers like these men and others persuade thoughtful readers to think along new paths. As careful explorers of their worlds. They do so at their own pace, even if takes years to get one poem or one novel just right so that it speaks to the evil they  encountered and upholds the good.

However, elected public figures are not usually among those who have years to think through an idea. They’re expected to have a word ready whenever someone sticks a microphone before them.  At the same time they fear they might misspeak and say a word with an unintended connotation or a word not fit for public consumption. 

This happened here in Wichita a few weeks ago when a newsman, thinking his microphone was turned off, made an end-of-day comment using the f-word and was promptly fired.  

That told me that he, like so many others, has two languages – one for public use and one for private occasions – and the private language is crude and vulgar.  I used to tell my students that if they needed to use vulgarisms and obscenities as intensifiers it revealed a paucity of vocabulary.  You don’t need f-words, n-words, s-words, d-words and h-words to express feeling if you have a rich vocabulary.  

Has the era of words left us?  

Daily I read about killings across the nation. Some people believe in violence. Yet I continue to believe in the power of words.  And pray they might retain  power.

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