The Terrible Magic Of Words

Alison Flood highlights the work and the authorial philosophy of novelist Hilary Mantel in reminding us that, as writers, we must stand behind what we write.

To me, this is a basic observation.  It doesn’t truly need to be said.  But apparently, it does.  It is also necessary, apparently, to remind ourselves that we do not need to write, or speak, every hour of the bloomin’ day.

Books Here And There has made both of these points many times.  They are not contradictory; they are complementary.  We who write do so because that is our talent; that is what we do.  But no one has to write.  There is no legal, moral, or ethical obligation to sit in front of a screen or put pen to paper and write words down, and there is no corresponding demand that we can make for the world to listen to us.  They are not obligated to us, either.

We have reached a point in the world–especially in the West–where we are simply talking too much and saying too little.  We have conceded the intellectual proposition that “anything is possible” so often that most of us actually believe it.  Our “open minds,” which we pat ourselves on the back for having, have actually become “formless minds,” pliable entities to be shaped at a moment’s notice by the will and whim of the dictators who run the press and the social media.

An open mind is not one that accepts without question every idea that comes into it.  An open mind is one grounded in the physical laws of the universe and in the generally-confirmed propositions by which we live, but one ready to adapt and change as new and better information comes in.  That means an open mind does not change simply because the aggrieved group of the month is yelling very loudly about how oppressed they are.  Such a mind waits until the actual facts of a situation can be ascertained and obtained, and then makes a judgement about the validity of such a claim, or any other claim about how things “really are” in the physical or social world.

As a general rule of behavior, all of us need to shut the hell up if we don’t know what we’re talking about, or if we don’t have enough evidence to support the worldview we espouse.  Conditions might improve if we gave more of our attention to writers who have truly wrestled with the world’s problems or seen clearly the connections between the arts, the sciences, and human politics.  Truth to tell, however, there are fewer of those kinds of men and women around than there used to be.  The world lacks today the thoughtful, contemplative people who endeavored to make sense of the progress of human affairs and who dared show us how much farther we have to go:  Jacob Bronowski, Suzanne K. Langer, Walter Lippman, and E.H. Gombrich, to name only four, are no longer with us.  And who do we have?  Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Michelle Malkin–people who’d rather shout than think, and all of whom are dedicated, as Malkin puts it, to turning up the volume rather than turning it down on public discourse.  It’s a sad state of affairs.

Yet, thoughtful people do write.  They do so every day, and when they do, they are obligated to take the full risks of writing.  They must stand behind their words, and they must be prepared for criticism.  The public has an obligation, as well.  While the public is not obligated to listen to or read what a writer has to say, the arbitrary, capricious, and wholly-unjustified removal of a piece of discourse from the public sphere must not be tolerated.  This kind of censorship happened to author and veteran Jim Wright the other day when Facebook removed his satirical essay on 9/11.  Personally, I get his point, but I prefer my own view of 9/11 to his.  Yet, I stand with those who were very unhappy that Facebook removed the post.  Mr. Wright said nothing egregious.  He threatened no one.  He did not put the public in danger by yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, which is still the standard by which public discourse may be censored.  He did none of these things.  What he did was write many words with which other people disagreed.  The fact that other people disagreed with them or found them offensive is not grounds for censorship.  The Watergate case and the Pentagon Papers cases forty years ago clearly established that prior censorship–censoring a work before its publication or immediately upon its attempted publication–was not a principle upon which a society that values freedom of expression could stand.  After something is published, we can censor the hell out of it, if we wish, through public criticism (God knows we have the means for that these days), or outright removal, if such a piece threatens the public safety, but not before.  Mr. Wright’s essay does not meet the latter test of a threat.  It doesn’t even come close.

Our willingness to be persuaded by a verbal proposition or offended by a verbal proposition proves only one thing:  there is a terrible magic in words, those ephemeral letters we see on our screens.  That’s all they are, yet they must be chosen and used with care, for their use will have effects we cannot see.  If you’ll permit the popular culture reference, I recall something Spike the vampire said in a sixth-season episode of Buffy, the Vampire-Slayer.  Buffy Summers, the Slayer, has died, and her friends miss her and wish to bring her back–a foolish and dangerous idea.  Spike learns how they are going to bring Buffy back and walks away from his friends in the house, saying over his shoulder as he leaves, “It’s magic.  There are always consequences.”

Well, there you have it.  As it was in Joss Whedon’s world, so it is in ours.  Words are magic.  When we write or speak, there are always consequences.

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