I recently reread Vaclav Havel’s “A Word on Words” to be reminded that humans can use words for the good of humanity. I haven’t seen enough of that lately.
To his credit, I was reminded how words allow humans to create and act in ways both enlightening and frightening.
Havel wrote the speech to be delivered after he won the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers in 1989.
“There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness,” he wrote. He went on to remind his audience that the Bible and all stories begin with “the Word.”
Our religions are transmitted in words, as are our ethics, our knowledge of science, our laws and our understanding of each other.
From these words we act, we create and we destroy. Havel noted that in many countries, the wrong words will land you in prison. One is reminded of Russian journalists who often die violently or disappear if they cover stories “in the wrong manner.”
We are never alone now, never free of words, never free to live without judging. Our phones alert us incessantly of Facebook posts, Tweets and email. Work never ends –– the boss is in our pocket.
We have no time for real judgement and instead allow the pundits and bloggers and posts to do it for us, regardless of who they might be.
We end up participating in an ongoing chain of judging without taking the time for judgement.
Judgment requires taking the time to survey multiple sources, to compare and contrast various points of view and to speculate on the relation between these views and the reality you live.
Coming to a judgement that is different than the one you last read does not immediately mean it was “fake” or “dishonest.” Coming to a different judgement of the same facts is normal.
Sandy Hook happened, though, and there were extremists who made money questioning the reality of even such a tragedy.
Judging without judgment merely requires hitting the “Share” button and repeating someone else’s view of an issue without thought. Judging is as easy as reading and sharing a post that has been preselected for you to keep you glued to social media.
I remember when newscasters simply cast the news. Now what we call “the news” runs 24 hours a day – again, it is inescapable –– and the hosts, as they are now called, host a panel of experts and pundits who analyze, judge and opine for us. People now pick a channel that streams the version of the news with which they are most comfortable.
News of old included reporters from the field who reported on what was happening in the field; more and more those people are being let go and replaced by pundits in studios who spin things for us.
My dad watched the news and read the paper and formed an opinion about the war and Nixon and civil rights. Over time, some of those opinions changed, but it was never a team sport for him. He never had a channel for his team, never had his team’s talking heads feeding him all the lines and ideas he needed to support his team. Back then, people didn’t get trapped into a circle of other people’s thinking.
Since then, not only has TV news changed, but print news suffers endless disparagement because it either fails to live up to team expectations, or worse, has been bought-out and turned into a team rag itself.
Social media eases us deeper into this morass by feeding us the team line from a thousand faceless groups and sources.
Authorship has disappeared in this cloud of words. We never know who wrote what we are reading, and again, social media sends content we like so we keep on “reading.” Media is edited and transmitted for effect; it is not edited for truth or ethical content.
Havel reminds the Germans that he does not “need to go to any lengths to explain to you, of all people, the diabolical nature of certain words.”
German words edited for effect and without an ethical basis and without regard to truth created a system of propaganda that marched millions into death camps.
Reading – and by that I mean interpreting and judging any media – requires both an ethical and factual guide.
You cannot tell me the world is flat. Science and observation do yield empirical results in my world.
More importantly, you cannot tell me it is moral to judge people by their color, religion or nationality. I have read “Mein Kampf.”
Reading critically requires examining ideas, even the worst of ideas, through a process of questioning best done alone and without the help of a team. It means critiquing the media itself, knowing who the author is and what their motives are and examining the language and images themselves to determine if they are factual and logical.
Havel warns us about Words that act as Arrows, Words that shine with hatred and presage immoral deeds.
Words and images that serve to divide can never enlighten.
Americans now have a greater responsibility to use language morally and read critically and think deeply about what we say and do than ever before. Our enemies, seeing us weaken on this front, have attacked us there because we are strong elsewhere.
You do not need to attack an enemy if you can set him at war with himself.
Russia, Iran and North Korea now undermine movements that could be positive and inclusive for this country by setting us against ourselves.
Unable to beat us on the world stage militarily or economically, they have seen our intellect weakened and attack us there.
If Russia can make NATO a dirty word or a bill we don’t want to pay, if they can count on us fighting about which American lives matter or matter more, what can they fail to accomplish –– Crimea has fallen and Ukraine is under attack.
When enemies see use settle for one side of America, when they see the teams sacrifice ethics for power, the Russians might hold the largest military drills in the post-Soviet era, they might reach out to China and establish military and economic ties and China might expand its territory into international waters.
They are doing so right now, knowing we will make some noise but stay focussed on our own issues –– issues they helped create and continue to exacerbate.
Reach Boyd C. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org .