Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Powers of language in shadowy times

St. Elijah's Monastery near Mosul, Iraq, constructed in the late 6th century,
obliterated in the 21st century
Each of us is in contact with so many people via Facebook, twitter, the comments under online articles, and and so on, and I've felt burdened of late by certain dominant, humorless tendencies online. What if we tried to take a world that is slantdicular and often evil--something we simply cannot deny after Auschwitz, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, Syrian gas attacks on children and families, and much more--and tried to make it stand up straight by each of us being examples of clear-speaking truth (with good humor and without obfuscation or jargon) with no residue at all of contempt and hatred? What if we made ourselves stand up a little straighter in the process? Maybe even we could even be examples of out-of-fashion plain old goodness, as best we could achieve it.

Could we each make a tiny but transformative difference in the world with words? Could we make the world a little better, small as we are? We are tiny compared to the mass of human beings, yet we contact so many others via online sites and social media, and they contact others in turn... Our word-reach is, in fact, enormous, and we have no idea how far the words go. Are we in fact making the world for ourselves and others a worse place by wielding so much scorn as a word-weapon (rather than generosity and humor and clear back-and-forth discussion where people learn from one another)? 

What if we kept to clarity of thought, practiced fair back-and-forth discussion, and sent out light-drenched word-bouquets of truth and beauty and even love instead of weeds dripping with scorn and contempt? Could we affirm by such acts that each human person is of some mysterious, precious value? Could that help to transform the nature of the world for the better? Could that make the situation of all of us a better one? Could we live into the ideal (despite the existence of error and evil and despite those who refuse the good) even through the debased modes of social media and online comments?

You see what I am: change me, change me! --Randall Jarrell

16 comments:

  1. To make a verbal thing that somehow reflects redemption--that goal spurs me on. Not to shy away from tragedy, not to blur the clear lines of evil, but to reach beyond them toward an adumbration of harmony and joy.Verbal things (poems, novels, stories,plays, Face Book posts)can do that; but the desire must reside in the writer's heart. Scorn and contempt are a choice.Paraphrasing Milton "You want to be a better poet? Become a better man."

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    1. Congenial. I believe that! We betray ourselves and others when we forget how to speak the truth.

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  2. This is something we all desire to do in our work, but the problem is that we are human. This is a problem and a gift both. But it means that we will get angry and emotional, and also that our ideas on what constitutes unmediated good differ. Hate is never a good thing, but how can we stare into the face of what we view as evil and not hate it, particularly when we feel so powerless?

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    1. I guess the question that I'm asking is--what if we are not so powerless? What if we each began to strive to change the way we are in the world, the way we touch others? Could we change the world? It is astonishing how many people we do already touch via social media and online sites--what if we leaned toward the good and true in those places? Could we begin to change things for the better? Because with scorn and contempt we aim toward a terrible goal.

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  3. But before all these things we must ensure we are read. And, if possible, ensure that what we write sticks.

    I know I am seen as a facetious Brit, and that this is unseemly in the face of evil. But for me solemnity doesn't cut it. Solemnity emerges from the UN and the words fade as they are uttered. Elsewhere Trump is condemned but in predictable language; the stuff that sticks is the comic who played Sean Spicer as a spiteful ambulant podium. There was a memorable image and lo! - Spicer is gone.

    When humour works it's because it's unexpected. And the unexpected grabs lapels. Alternatively we must strive to be original. It struck me that Trump, despite his bombast, was a pathetic figure. And pathos can be interpreted as weakness. I fear this isn't love-thy-neighbour but we must remember that the US president starts out with a number of powerful advantages. To unsettle him we need to surprise him.

    During WW2 Churchill had the right idea by always pronouncing Nazi with a short a; it sounded uneducated yet somehow it conveyed contempt. Better still was the song British soldiers sang while marching or engaged in drudgery:

    Göring has only got one ball
    Hitler's [are] so very small
    Himmler's so very similar
    And Goebbels has no balls at all


    I realise that the post calls for something different, a heightened sense of morality, the precious value of humans, living by ideals. There is no reason why we should not aspire to these qualities and they are not unamenable to humour. But if we are to mobilise them we need to make them memorable. In fact it's not a bad rule of thumb for anyone writing anything.

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  4. I just learned that you can't go to the public baths in Japan if you have a tattoo. Apropos of nothing, but... good motivation not to get one!

    That little ditty is well known over here--I heard it many times when I was still a child. And yes, humor is important. No doubt I should have added a little here. It's just such an onslaught of the humorless on social media. The Niagara of scorn overwhelms all else sometimes.

    I didn't feel that we had a sensible candidate last time around. Both seemed to be a special gift to the political cartoonist, though in entirely different ways. However, I wouldn't be surprised if we had the same winner if the election happened today because jobs are up and gdp is up and wages are up. And that's what a huge number of people want, though it's not what journalists care about and what is discussed in the media.

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  5. p. s. I never worried about what my children ate when they were picky, so long as it averaged out well over three days. I guess I'm the same about blog posts. They don't all have to be amusing so long as there is a mix.

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  6. "What if we kept to clarity of thought, practiced fair back-and-forth discussion, and sent out light-drenched word-bouquets of truth and beauty and even love instead of weeds dripping with scorn and contempt?"

    Well, we would not add to the pollution, we might slightly improve the intellectual environment, but we should not get our hopes up. I think of a passage in Arnold:

    "That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,--still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English."

    Almost any adjective of nationality would do for "English", wouldn't it?

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    1. Oh, that is a good quote, George and a way of speaking that is no more--and how seldom do we see a heartfelt tribute to a contemporary writer from someone of Arnold's distinction. In fact, do we have anyone of such distinction to speak for us, or are such critics all passed away?

      I do think what we have now is having an effect, and what we have now is a small minority of people who seem to spend their waking moments posting upset comments on social media. But they feel omnipresent because they are so busy spreading negativity. So isn't there hope in countering it? I am sad to think that not much can be done.

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    2. I am not on the whole devoted to Arnold, but he has his moments. The passage quoted is from "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time". It is in the selected Arnold published by Oxford University Press, but also available on Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12628 .

      I hope that writing and speaking thoughtfully will eventually have an effect. Evidence can be hard to find, though.

      (Long ago, at Politics and Prose in Washington, I saw on the remainder shelves a book with the title Why Arnold Matters. Goodness, I thought, wasn't Lionel Trilling the last one who considered that Arnold mattered? I pulled the book out for a look, to find that it was not about Matthew Arnold, but about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The friends I asked all said that they would have immediately assumed the book was about the then governor of California.)

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    3. I don't think I've read him in years, but I do remember that essay--but nothing of it! Time wipes the mind, alas.

      Why Arnold Matters! Hilarious.

      Yes, evidence is thin on the ground... And that goes for a lot of well-made art, too, art that doesn't adhere to the legacy of Duchamp or writing that looks back to before Modernism for its formal inspirations.

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  7. Although I can't fault Roderick Robinson for pointing out the uses of political satire, I find it mistaken to think that our politicians are anything but symptoms of social ills that potentially implicate us all. With only a few exceptions, I'm generally less worried about politicians than I am the social-media mobs of furious purists, preachers, language cops, and righteous finger-waggers.

    Many years ago, in another life and long before the advent of social media, I was on the verge of becoming one of those people, determined to push news stories that showed everyone I was right about something, committed to winning debates with put-downs that destroyed!!!! my witless opponents. And then one day I simply stopped, when I realized I was getting cheered on by low-minded people while disappointing better friends whose opinions I respected.

    One of these days I'll figure out how to tell people they're making asses of themselves on social media without falling back into habits that make me sick to my stomach.

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    1. When you figure that out, let me know! I have blocked a good many people from my Facebook and twitter feeds because it just felt terrible to feel their anxiety or hysteria.

      I, too, am bothered about the plethora of mobs online and off. I'm not actually paying that much attention of the things that my friends and acquaintances on social media are so exercised about--I'm taking a leaf from Thoreau, who tells us we go to the news too often. I have a lot of projects to work on, and I don't really have the leisure to get worked up about the day's distresses. The hurricane is different; I do want to know what's going on and how to give etc. But the constant attacks on the government just derail me--I can't grasp how frothing at the mouth all day on social media does anyone any good or changes anything.

      I am, by the by, glad that you are the way you are. And I always like stories about people who suddenly change. I've done that very thing several times in my life; it's good to transform. Be a pink and green anole; grow a new tail...

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    2. Why, thank you! I should add, though, that I was only at my worst in some early online communities that predated Facebook and Twitter. I came to dislike that I was adopting a stridency online that didn't match who I was in real life, and I'm glad I got that out of my system before I could embarrass myself on a global scale.

      I just found out tonight that my dad was part of a team in Savannah packing up tractor trailers full of drinking water and other supplies destined for Houston. The news from and about Houston appears to have reminded many of the frothers and shriekers that we all have more than a few things in common as citizens and as humans. It's a shame we needed a catastrophe for that.

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    3. Yes, I think all those pictures of the mixed-up colors and races of us helping one another without a thought for such things reminded a lot of people that we are one people. Much needed in a time of coarse insistence on identity politics... And though I saw a cartoon or two mocking the South, I think Texas modeled some virtues that the rest of the country could emulate.

      Well, I can't picture you as strident! But if you were, I am glad you were the sort of person who could see himself and change his ways.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.