Saturday, November 23, 2013

Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury....and remedying it.
Albus Dumbledore

For centuries the world has valued words, for they allow us to communicate not only ideas but also convey emotions and feelings.  A well-crafted phrase can touch the heart every bit as effectively as a physical touch or visual expression.

Shakespeare created images that resonate even today, for we all know that though Anthony proclaimed Brutus to be an honorable man that was not his honest belief.

We carry forward his words and phrases even today, using them repeatedly to describe our own world:

...a foregone conclusion...
...neither rhyme or reason?
The lady doth protest too much...
The course of true love never did run smooth;
Knock, knock! Who's there?
Once more into the breach...
We few.  We happy few.  We band of brothers...

But William Shakespeare is certainly not alone amongst the craftsmen of English.

In 1940 the United Kingdom persevered against overwhelming odds, motivated largely by the words of Winston Churchill.  By all rational measures, the British were overwhelming underdogs in their battle with Germany, but Churchill rallied his people, honestly observing "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

It is arguable whether his words were purely original, but it is clear that he effectively communicated the situation.  His message was received.

Skills with the English language are not limited to the home of the mother tongue, and the United States has been similarly blessed with those who value the language.  This past week has noted 2 significant anniversaries that remind us of the power of words.

On November 19th 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was asked to deliver "...a few appropriate remarks" as a part of the dedication of a cemetery.  No man has ever followed directions more exquisitely.

In just 9 sentences, he spoke volumes, touching simply upon the truths of the day and the traditions of the nation.  It is tempting to include the entire speech herein, but that is unnecessary, for because of his eloquence, we all know what he said.  THAT is the power of words.

On November 22 50 years ago, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas.  Many things died that day...the illusion of Camelot, the innocence of a young generation, and perhaps even the hope for the future.  The country's loss was not solely a chief executive but a man who could use language to effectively convey his own aspirations and goals, making it possible for everyone to share in his dreams of betterment.

Again, it is tempting to include many, many quotations from the man, and certainly there is no dearth of choices.  However, it is more appropriate to simply remember them collectively, marveling in his ability to deal with the dark days when his Catholic religion created questions of his fitness for the Presidency, the threatening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the heady days when he proposed a trip to the moon.

Alas, today a reality looms where these men would no longer be considered worthy.  Why?  It is not that words have lost meaning, although the value of many morphemes has been eroded beyond repair.  It is not that a carefully crafted phrase no longer conveys an idea.  It is certainly not that ideas no longer exist.

No, for while a case can be made the true rhetorical skills are no longer taught it is another skill that has disappeared.  As a society we no longer listen.

We have become so enamored of sound bites, text-speak, and ROTFLMAO that the idea of even a few succinct sentences overstresses our abilities.  We are so busy thinking of our witty response that we no longer can be bothered to comprehensively grasp a concept and evaluate it.

Worse, too often our objection is based upon miss-information and unsubstantiated wisdom spread through the forest fire of the internet.  "I heard" has replaced objective reasoning and personal investigation.  Such propaganda has become the currency of exchange, intelligence dumbed down to the lowest possible level.

Nowhere is this disease more evident than the Federal Government, a place where its virulence is exhibited even in the halls of the Congress and the chambers of the Supreme Court, the very hallowed spaces where reasoned debate and discussion were once welcomed...where such luminaries as Patrick Henry and Oliver Wendell Holmes practiced their craft.

Although examples are many, we need only remember the sudden outburst hurled during a Presidential address when an elected Representative arose from the playground sandbox to interrupt claiming "You lie!"

In the future I shall endeavor to show that words can be used to explain, to question, and to share the ideas that will drive our society forward.  I shall also provide examples of those that drive us the times when mankind communicated poorly, causing the very issues that we still struggle to surmount.  You may choose to agree or disagree with my observations, but you must do so constructively.  Your contributions are welcomed, but you must be willing to contribute thoughts based upon facts, or opinions based upon reasoning.  In short, you must demonstrate that you too value words and wish to use them for our collective betterment.