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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Power Of Words

I was reading Time Magazine the other day on one of my regular monthly ferry trips, and found an interesting article about the Collins Dictionary trying to eliminate 20 old or unused words in order to make room for 2000 new ones.

Not that I ever use apodeictic (unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration) or fusby, (short, stout or squat), but when you read a list of new words that dictionaries have included lately, such as cookie cutter and fanboy (a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee of such things as comics or movies), you wonder about the future of our language. Then again, as with most things nothing is static, not even language.

Words have fascinated me since I first started to read the lyrics of songwriters like Joni Mitchell and realized how weak and ineffective my own lyrics were. Just the right turn-of-phrase can create powerful images and emotions, and literally expand a person's consciousness. I'm not a big fiction reader, but I know the same thing can happen with a well written book.

In listening to some of Barack Obama's speeches over the last two years, you could feel the effect not only of his words but of his delivery. He reminded us of the great orators of the past whose power lay in the way they could rouse the public's emotions, both bad and good, by the way they delivered a speech.

The internet has exposed some interesting, and sometimes disturbing, facts to me about people. Sitting at a computer and typing away just as I am doing now, creates a sort of disconnected self-aggrandizing effect--a sense of fearlessness in expressing one's ideas and opinions. The danger is that once you hit the post button, you are sending a part of your private thoughts out there for anyone to read and even respond to in some cases. And you might not like what they say in return!

Without trying to sound too pompous, I've discovered that there is an awful lot of ignorance out there, so much so that it's almost shocking. People spew all kinds of "information" that is simply incorrect, they list facts that are not true or haven't been properly researched, and others sop it up as if it was out of a bible.

For example, who can forget the elderly woman who stood up at a McCain rally and said Obama was an Arab? Where did she get that idea from? Not that there's anything wrong with being an Arab...but to her, apparently there is. Could it be that she heard people on the campaign trail intentionally repeating Obama's entire name...Barack Hussein Obama? Mr. McCain had to correct her, and he had to impress upon the crowd that Obama was not a bad man. What a shame that it came to that.

In contrast to the internet, old standbys like newspapers and magazines, and radio or television news broadcasts (other than Fox :-), now have my respect like they never have before! They have the rule of research behind them...it doesn't mean that they are always correct, but fact-checking and finding multiple sources for the same information means that what we read or hear from them is probably as pretty close to the truth as it can get.

I want news and information, I don't want it skewed in any particular direction, and when I want an opinion I'll seek it out. But who cares about me? :-) There have been several times when I've found myself in a verbal scuffle on the web when I've expressed my point of view. It has taught me to be a lot more careful about what I say and who I say it to. Words on a computer screen are not like a face-to-face discussion where facial expression and inflection can affect what comes out of the mouth. People are usually more polite when it's face-to-face, but online they become like a pack of dogs on the attack with little or no thought as to how it might impact the person being responded to, or even that there is a human being on the other end of the argument.

I used to engage in these wars of words, but I've learned that it's useless...I'm not going to change anyone's mind and they're not going to change mine, so why even bother? On the rare occasion that I break past my own rules and post my response to something, I leave it at that and don't engage any further. I really should just shut up in the first place.

In Buddhism, one practices something called "right speech". That doesn't simply mean checking information and getting your facts straight. It means that we should be acutely aware of the impact of what we are saying at every moment. Words are like that proverbial ripple effect of a drop of water, they spread much further and impact much more than we realize. A kind word can spread from person to person like warm sunshine, a harsh or ignorant one can create an endless chain of negative events. And it isn't just what we say, it's how we say it...tone of voice, volume, eye contact and facial expression, they all have their effect.

I think most people suffer from the "nobody's listening" syndrome, and the number of blogs (like mine!) and YouTube videos and iReports out there proves that. The idea that no one is listening may very well be true...because if everyone is yelling, who can hear anything? The other side to it, however, is that over time we become louder and more insulting and obtrusive, and we stop thinking about the harm we may be causing.

"You STUPID IDIOT!!" Who hasn't found themselves spouting something at someone in frustration at times? The problem occurs when it becomes almost like an addiction and we CAN'T STOP YELLING or sputtering our angry responses.

Okay, I vow this very second to never post an annoyed opinion on the web again. Until somebody REALLY pisses me off....