Words have power. Fact. We live in an age where anyone can say anything and be believed. An age where fact checking is only reliable if it aligns with your beliefs. Words. Have. Power.

But power to what? To sway, to innovate, to encourage, to bring hope – and in their absence limit important forms of expression necessary for real communication. A few weeks ago two events brought these thoughts to the surface. And while both cases are based in fiction there are real world implications.

Anthony Doerr and Me
Meeting Anthony Doerr.

The first was a talk from the Arlington County Library by Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr. He started his talk by illustrating the power of words to inspire and dream. He said “when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, it really depended on what I was reading at the time.” That influencing power is taken for granted but we are seeing the implications now – where it isn’t just about the imaginary worlds that words can conjure. Rather it is the ability of words to form and direct ideas.

We know that followers of a specific individual who “says what he wants to say,” and has “real talk” are attracted to him, in part, because he provides a language for their uneasiness and unhappiness. He gives them someone to blame. But what kind of world do we live in if coming together is all under a rhetoric of hate?

Because of these current events I found Doerr’s presentation especially moving. He was charismatic and funny, serious and inspiring. He walked us through WWII Germany where cheap radios were used to prevent communication beyond its borders and citizens only heard propaganda giving them “enemies” to blame. There is no more real life evidence on the power of language and words than in the propaganda of the Third Reich.

However, the magic of Doerr’s book – All the Light we Cannot See – is in finding hope through words despite their absence. In his story he uses radio waves (invisible, yet all around us) and brings together a blind girl in German occupied France and a member of Hitler’s army through storytelling. While fictional in form, Doerr is able to show the power of language when it is allowed to flow freely in all its forms – in Braille and through a hidden radio in an attic.  In the talk he states that “literature is a gym for your empathy muscle,” and emphasized that the more you read the more you are taken beyond your own life and situation. Consequently embracing other visions, experiences and points of view living side by side with your own.

But the omission of words have power as well. In the same week that I saw Doerr I attended the sold out production of 1984 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It was intense. With strobe lighting and smooth blocking we were taken through Winston Smith’s memory as he is being tortured by the thought police. Based on George Orwell’s novel of the same name  “One could say that 1984 is a novel first and foremost about language and its abuse, about writing and its erasure.” (Drew Lichtenberg in his column for the Shakespeare Theatre Company)

For those unfamiliar with the book Orwell wrote this in the early fifties about a dystopian future where our every thought is controlled and watched by an ephemeral individual called Big Brother. Individuals work to redact and change written pieces, erasing “thought criminals” from existence and are forced to believe only the truths that are presented to them. Ideas are presented as novel and new (increased rations for chocolate, when the ration really never changes), or right when they are clearly wrong (2+2 equals five). It is a world turned upside down. You never know what is real.

“‘Power is power over people, yes, over the body, but above all, over the mind. Power over external, objective reality is not important. Reality is inside the skull.’ What Orwell understood was that language, an imperfect system of signs created by humans could be used to alter the map of reality both inside and outside people’s heads. Orwell’s interest in language is what makes him simultaneously ever-relevant and difficult to define in terms of influence.” – Drew Lichtenberg

What is clear from both pieces of art is that Doerr and Orwell live on the same plane. They both see the power words have to change perception and emotion. In some ways it’s helped me understand how certain political candidates have been successful this year. It’s an obvious statement but this election’s lack of verbal accountability has reached an almost unbearable cycle of words spinning around and around as candidates rally together groups of people in hatred of one another. As a society we are surrounded by words via mass communication, and it’s impossible to not be influenced by at least some of those messages we see every day.

But I wonder about people who only want to hear about events “in a digestible form.” Something short or pithy. We see it all the time. On Facebook readers only comment on an article’s short description instead of the full text, newspaper articles that are read based on headlines (or even more the rise of quizzes and click bait), and even 140 characters on Twitter.

We see it in the rise of internet culture from trolls, to the hate speech of Gamergate and even those who targeted individual women in response to Beyonce’s recent visual album “Lemonade.” You can now say more about how you feel on Facebook without ever using words. An emoticon will do where a like is not enough, no need for context a smiley will do. And I say this all as someone who works and sees the benefits of social media every day.

It seems to me in this world of contradiction the rise of anti-intellectualism is Orwellian in nature. That as a society we are asking others to think for us. To tell us what to believe and what to say. And as a historian I know that this is not necessarily limited to the 21st century, it’s just become easier to only listen to the voices who agree with you.

Last year This American Life aired a podcast that talked about how anyone can change their mind on an issue by spending twenty minutes talking to someone with a different perspective. The first study fell apart due to falsified research, but another one was conducted shortly afterwards (you can hear about it here on TAL) which found that the results were, in some cases true.

Essentially – listening, talking, speaking with an individual you don’t agree with brings perspective. And when confronted with someone who has experience in the issue you oppose you are more likely to become more flexible in those views.

And that is perhaps the complexity of language. That even when the words of fear and hate are spoken, we know that to limit them goes against principles of free speech choosing the fine line of acknowledging and refuting.

Credit: Pierre Metivier via Flickr Creative Commons.
Credit: Pierre Metivier via Flickr Creative Commons.

I believe we live in a world where words are capable of bringing balance, despite my growing irritation with politics.  A world where a phrase can bring solace, a declaration – hope, a whisper – comfort. A world where we recognize that, as Doerr said in his talk, “Sometimes it is ok to sit in the silence and feel the [surge] of rain on our limbs.”

And finally a world where we think before we act, discuss before we tear down, and support before we destroy. Words. Have. Power.

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