It feels almost frivolous to write blog posts about my rarefied life in a world where people are being bombed out of existence and passenger jets are being shot out of the sky and genocides are quietly, systematically going on in various corners of the world and a virulent disease of horrific proportions is cutting a swathe through the people of West Africa. In fact, it doesn’t just feel frivolous: it sort of is.
But, as I so often have to ask myself, what else can I do?
Words, whether written or spoken, are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal. We can use them to rabble-rouse or to comfort; to propagandise or to tell the truth. We can use them calmly, or we can use them in the heat of anger. Sometimes, the same words can mean entirely different things, if said in two different tones of voice. Sometimes, too, writing words down can strip them of nuance and lead to misunderstanding. Two different people can have two entirely different, even contradictory, interpretations of the same written or spoken text, which means that words, our greatest treasure, can also be our biggest liability. Information is as vital a tool in our world as medicine or infrastructure or politics – nations and peoples can rise and fall depending on what words are in their holy books or on the lips of their leaders, and on how the people who hear or read these words understand what they are being told.
So, then, as a person who lives and breathes for words, perhaps I am not as helpless as I feel.
Of course, my sphere is very small, but I can choose what words to fill it with. The words I use go on to have a life without and beyond me, which means I must choose them carefully. My words are my only means of explaining myself to the world, and they will be my only legacy. I can hope that they will be understood as I intended them to be, but I know I have no control over that – once a word has left your pen, or your mouth, or your keyboard, and reached the eyes or ears of another, it is no longer yours. You are responsible for it, but it no longer belongs to you.
I wish that world leaders could think about words this way. I wish those calling for war could consider that, in their need to ‘win’, they are throwing their own people on a pyre, and I wish they could be made to care that they are destroying lives and blighting the future. What good is it to stand triumphant over a smoking, blasted landscape? I wish those responsible for leading the world’s faithful could be more considered in the words they use, and the labels they choose to apply to others, and the interpretations they make of holy texts and scriptures. I wish people – those people with the loudest voices, and the largest platforms, and the greatest amount of words at their disposal – would use them more carefully, respecting their power, and being mindful of the consequences. Skewing the thinking of a people is not simply a game, or a way to win influence – it is dangerous, and something which can easily flare out of control, and it is wrong. It is also the easiest thing in the world to do, if one has the words and there are ears willing to hear.
I wish people would value doing right over being right. I wish they’d sacrifice the pleasure of shouting the loudest or the longest, or having the final word in an argument, or feeling like the one whose words are law, for the good of those who cannot speak.
This is why I am passionate about education and literacy. I believe people should be given the tools to distinguish between what they are being told, and the truth. I believe nobody should be forced to become reliant upon one source for the information they need to live their lives in peace. I believe people should be given the tools to make up their own minds, to come to balanced conclusions, to enter into rational discussion, and to understand that even though different peoples may speak different languages, the words are all the same.
All anyone wants is to live in peace, in relative prosperity, and to feel that they are safe. All anyone wants is to send their children out to play in the morning without fearing that they will never come home. All anyone wants is to have the dignity of a livelihood that is unthreatened by shells or tanks or rocket fire, or illness or militias or crushing rule. We have created a world where those who do not believe the same words that we do are ‘wrong’, whether those words relate to a god, or a political system, or an economic structure, or a history that may not have happened exactly as we have always been told. We have taken the greatest tool we have for bringing us together and turned it into the most efficient way of keeping us apart; if we’d had a blueprint for making everything wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job of it.
Words are powerful. My words, and yours. It is never too late to start using them.
Had to comment on this quickly even though I haven’t assimilated it all yet (on a tight schedule today and heading out soon). I can’t stress how fulfilling it is to write about a serious, distressing subject from a HUMAN perspective, as FICTION. My debut novel is Milele Safari and amongst the topics covered are genocide, war abuse and female circumcision – the quickest way to describe it is using my Twitter blurb The never-ending story of life, love and death in the wild places of Africa.
I tried to write it ‘authentically’ and found early on that to do so from a bald political or social perspective just couldn’t cut it deeply enough, simply because I wasn’t writing ‘contemporary’ history, or an editorial, but telling a story. I quickly went from a single narrative to several viewpoints and writing styles to tell the central storyline from a number of experiences. It worked for me writing it, and it seems to hit home with readers judging from the reactions I’ve got so far, even from people I know usually read very different genres.
Never, ever be afraid to tackle difficult subjects in fiction – just find a way for your own voice to tell it as it feels, as well as how it happens.
Thanks, Jan. I know that writing has to ‘speak truth to power’, as that wonderful phrase goes, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of dealing with painful realities in our fiction. I suppose I just felt hopeless and frustrated by my own lack of ability to do anything about the world’s injustices, until I reminded myself that words have power, and that we who use them shouldn’t forget that they *can* be used to help. Your book sounds very interesting and I think you did well to use several voices to tell your story; that’s what we need more of.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Cheers Sinead. 🙂
I certainly agree with your point that just about everyone on the planet wants to be able to live in peace and have their children be safe to grow up with a solid education and the means to understand others and the world around them. It’s when we gravitate to concepts and abstracts, especially those involving power (over others as well as materially, or over ‘turf’) that things start to get messy.
The minute that people are seen as ‘commodities’ of some description and not as living, feeling beings with their own ideas and pursuits it seems that respect and consideration drop out of the picture and reasons are found to stamp on individuality and the freedom to choose our own paths. Having long worked in the public sector I now have a horror of the tendency to compartmentalise and label social factors, as well as the seeking of standard or prescriptive solutions to various ‘broad’ scenarios or industries or ‘orientations’ of any description. Believe in and nurture your own humanity first, before you start telling others how to use theirs and yes, language has to be the key and should always be treated with care and dignity.
Hear, hear. Sadly, I really don’t think ‘freedoms’ like this (which should be basic human rights and simply the benefit of being alive!) will ever be respected everywhere. 😦
Nicely put. I can only but add my assent.