Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Dance of Meaning: Violence and Rhetoric

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein
There are lots of causes I'm willing to die for – but not one cause I'm willing to kill for.” - Mahatma Gandhi
"I wish the entire human race had one neck, and I had my hands around it!" – Charles Panzram

     Not all messages are made up of words. Perhaps the best messages are wordless – a mother's kiss on her baby's forehead, a handshake the seals a deal, a hug at funeral. Words have more precision, but actions have more impact. In the long run, we don't remember what people say; we remember how they made us feel; we remember their silent presence long after we've forgotten any particular thing they've said. We need words to think about the lessons that come to us across the course of our lives, but the wisdom we garner through life comes from collecting experiences – not thinking about them.
     As an English teacher, words have been my stock-in-trade. Whatever reputation I have built as a writing instructor has come through the trust I have put into the way words can shape thinking and the skill I have developed in showing others the importance of using the right words for the right occasions. As a rhetorical theorist, I have looked at words the way mechanical engineers look at materials and consider the forces necessary to bend them to produce specific results. As a musician, I have played with words and cared as much for the sounds they produce as the meanings they convey. As a reader, I have often admired the words of fellow human beings who have been able to stir passions within me for places I've never been and strangers I will never know. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, words are able to paint pictures that see through the dull materiality of this world and reveal glimpses that can only been seen by the heart. I value words; I don't always trust them, but they have nourished and sustained me well beyond the mere mortal limitations of my physical body.
     If life is a performance, then actions and words dance before us. Sometimes actions delicately lift words into the air and suspend them overhead to be admired and acknowledged before being returned gracefully to the ground. Sometimes words jaunt behind the back of actions and come leaping forward in syncopated gyrations. Sometimes actions and words compete for our attention while moving frantically before our eyes; other times, each will support the other by waiting with an outstretched hand while the other commands the spotlight. We derive meaning by recognizing their engagement with each other; confusion comes when words are out of step with actions or actions are no longer in sync with what's being said.
     Humans today are absurdly verbal and frequently hyperconscious of their verbosity. See, just reading that last sentence, made you think about it. At some time in eons past, however, there must have been a time when language was more defined through behavior than through orality. People moved and other understood one another through gesture and facial expression; critical evaluation of who we are to one another based upon what we say to one another came much, much later. As the human ability to express ideas grew through language so did the human capacity to understand ideas expand as well. While on some tacit level, we may have always understood that some behavior was “right” or “wrong,” it took words to articulate the conditions upon which we could come to some agreement that any particular behavior was “right” or “wrong.”
     As far as I know, I was not around eons ago when people began to reify the notions of “right” behavior and “wrong” conduct. On the other hand, I was around during my childhood, and I have fuzzy memories of learning the consequences of misbehavior and the rewards of being virtuous. Some lessons came from my parents who were not averse to beating me with a stick to convince me of the error of my ways. Some lessons came from my brothers who were willing to throw punches to inform me of my place. I also remember one kid from a neighborhood I grew up in who had a couple of cronies hold my arms while he punched me in the gut to let me know that he was dangerous. Each of these lessons I may have been able to comprehend if I had been merely told, but the memories of the personal violence I hold in my body go way past the linguistic neurons of my brain and are buried deep within the muscles that actual bore the bruises. I wasn't there the first time in history when someone desired something that someone else had and then used violence to take it away from the other, but I was there in my childhood the first time someone decided I needed to learn something through a painful thump.
     And this is it then: why I care so much about protecting and advancing the power of language. The ultimate lesson of my childhood simply was that the ability to hurt another person does not evoke respect for any idea, it merely induces pain and the fear of pain. Ideas that are accompanied by either violence or the threat of violence are morally corrupt. If you wrench my arm behind my back, I will loudly proclaim your superiority, but I will not believe it. If I survived my childhood with any belief intact, it is that violence is incompatible with morality. You cannot convince anyone of the “rightness” of your position and threaten to hurt them at the same time.
     This week, hundreds of miles from my backdoor, a couple of people tried to send a message by killing and injuring strangers at a sporting event. At the time of this writing, we have not heard their “explanation” of their message. The only message we heard was that they were horrible, horrible people for being willing to kill random strangers. Someday, sooner than later I imagine, journalists will squawk their message and try to contextualize what these people “wanted to say” with what they actually said by blowing up bystanders. It doesn't matter what their “other” message is. Violence is not rhetorical. Violence is the anthesis of rhetoric. You can disagree with me if you want to, and I promise I'll not hit you with a stick, punch you in the gut, or send shrapnel into your flesh. Because of this, I don't need to argue my moral superiority. Nonviolence is merely morally superior to violence. Always and forever.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.

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