The Power of Words

Reflection by Mark Abley, 14 June 2015

Thank you, Vanessa and Gary, for the beauty of your music and the delight it brings. Thank you to everyone who has contributed, in large ways or in small, to our service this morning and to the Unitarian Church of Montreal over the past year. I’m now going to shock my family to the core by opening this reflection with a couple of sentences uttered by the current prime minister of Canada. In a speech he gave in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Harper said: “But friends, thanks are just words. To have any real meaning, they must be backed by decisive action.”

“Thanks are just words.” I suppose it’s because so much of my life is defined and given meaning by words, that this brief sentence annoys me so much. Words might not be just an expression of gratitude. They might be a song. A joke. A prayer. A promise. An explanation. An apology. A conversation between good friends. Or the three most beautiful words in the English language: “I love you.” 

All of these, and so much more, arise from our ability to speak; they are a product of human beings’ incredible gift for language. It’s thanks to words, I fervently hope, that the volunteers at the UCM – I’m thinking particularly of the Java Jivers and the greeters and our devoted librarian, Chris Nielsen – that these people know we appreciate what they do in this community. 

If thoughts are the sons of heaven, as Samuel Johnson once wrote, then words are the daughters of earth. Language is by no means everything we are as human beings. But language is at the heart of so much.

That includes the bad as well as the good. When I was 13 and 14 years old, a shy and bespectacled boy attending City Park Collegiate in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I was bullied for a year by an older, larger boy who sat behind me in math class. I didn’t know him well, but for some reason I became the target of his loathing. He arranged to switch seats with a classmate so that he could sit at the back of the class, right behind my desk. Sometimes he would pinch me or punch me or pull my hair – I had lots of hair in those days – but his most refined technique of torture was simply to lean forward and whisper in one of my ears. 

He told me what he thought of me. He told me what he planned to do with me. He told me I could never get away from him. All through the class, I listened out for him. I feared the power of his words. He turned language into a weapon. And the worst of it was that because he threatened me with terrible reprisals if I informed on him, I suffered in silence – out of a mixture of pride and shame, I never told my parents or teachers what was happening.

 I can think of many examples of stupid and vicious language inflicted on children, supposedly for their own good, including the notorious line “Children should be seen and not heard.” But one of the stupidest and most vicious has to be the well-known rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones / but words will never harm me.” How ridiculous is that? Words can cause enormous harm. Words can maim and scar. With the advent of cyberspace, the taunts and threats of bullies have even caused some children to take their own lives. 

Language can betray – it’s not an innocent medium. I think music is much more innocent than language. Music has notes and melodies; language has pronouns. I realize that in what I’m about to say, some people in the congregation may disagree vehemently – in which case, I trust you’ll tell me over coffee. 

I grew up thinking, as some people still do, there was nothing wrong about the titles of such famous 20th-century books as Man and His Symbols, The Ascent of Man, and Man’s Hope. As a teenager I remember watching Sir Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series Civilisation, in which it seemed virtually nothing that made our species civilized had been created by women. The language in Clark’s accompanying book is full of sentences like these (he’s speaking about Renaissance buildings): “They are intended to make each individual more conscious of his powers, as a complete moral and intellectual being. They are an assertion of the dignity of man.” It must be hard for a woman to read those lines and feel that she is, in Clark’s words, a complete moral and intellectual being.

In the period that Clark was describing, of course, the verbal subjugation of women was in many respects even worse. Sir Francis Bacon, a Renaissance essayist and early scientist who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, looked on the natural world as a powerful woman who needed to be tamed. In his book Novum Organum he wrote this amazing sentence: “I am come in very truth, leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” By means of science, men could gain power over nature, female nature –  the purpose being, and this is another direct quote from Bacon, “to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”

 I don’t think the entire English language needs to be reshaped so as to get rid of its sexism. I’m not advocating for new invented pronouns to replace the old. But I do think we men need to be much more aware of the distortions and prejudices that are inherent in language as it has developed over the long centuries. Men shaped this language and others to suit our own power.

 Yet if language can be an instrument of damage, it can also be a refuge, a sanctuary, a path to liberation. To strip language away from a person is to strike at the heart of her sense of self.

One of the most viciously effective weapons of the residential school system in Canada was to deprive children of their language. Young children would be brought into the schools knowing only Cree, Ojibway, Mohawk, Inuktitut or any of the other dozens of Aboriginal languages that flourished in this country, and they would be punished if they were caught speaking a word of it. English was forced down their throats. 

It’s no wonder that so many Aboriginal people lost their voice. At many of the schools, the children were no longer even known by a name – any name. In the early years of the system, they were often renamed, given the names of dead saints in place of the Aboriginal names of their birth. But in a lot of the residential schools, what happened too was that the children were assigned a number. They were identified by that number. They were denied any other identity.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a session in the Northwest Territories a few years ago, one of the speakers was an Inuk named Paul Voudrach from Tuktoyaktuk, a small community on the Arctic Ocean. He described the abuse he suffered at a Catholic residential school, where he had been given the number 142. Through tears that had been stored up through decades of silence and shame, he said: “I used to look at the stars, and I used to think my Mom and Dad are seeing the same stars I’m looking at. I was really, really alone.” But perhaps the most powerful moment of his testimony came when he said, “I’m not Number 142. I’m Paul Voudrach, and I have a right to live.” 

Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave Paul Voudrach a chance to speak his name. Just words, Mr. Harper might say. Just words. But sometimes words can be a decisive action in their own right. For those who are powerless, for those who are marginalized, for those who are oppressed, what step can be more urgent and more necessary than daring to speak the truth they know? For those whose birthname does not match their gender identity, choosing a new name can be an act of liberation.

Repressive governments are afraid of language. I’m thinking particularly now of the government of Saudi Arabia, which paid Canada 15 billion dollars to buy a large number of armoured vehicles with automatic weapons attached. Saudi Arabia has no serious fear of external military attacks. It wants lethal machinery so as to intimidate its neighbours and overpower any dissenters at home. And it’s profoundly scared of words – any words other than the approved official kind. That’s why a Saudi court last year sentenced the blogger Raif Badawi to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashings. Now that’s decisive action.

“I was really, really alone,” Paul Voudrach said about his years in residential school. I fear that in his prison cell in Saudi Arabia, Raid Badawi feels terribly alone now. But the great gift of language is that it allows us to reach beyond our solitude, to transcend our loneliness, and to touch others. In his poem “Cosmic Canticle,” the Nicaraguan writer Ernesto Cardenal put it this way:

People are dialogue, I say.
If not, their words would touch nothing
like waves in the cosmos picked up by no radio
like messages to uninhabited planets
or a bellowing in the lunar void
or a telephone call to an empty house.
A person alone does not exist.

It’s taken me most of this reflection to find my way to poetry. But poetry is, I guess, the underlying substratum of what I’m saying today. Poets need to retain some faith in the beauty and the truth of language, in the face of much evidence to the contrary. 

To write poetry can be a liberating act, something that frees the spirit – perhaps because, at least in our society, it is politically useless. There are certain limits on what journalists are and are not allowed to say, even here in Montreal. There are no limits on what poets can say. That’s the beauty of being ignored by power. 

A California poet and psychiatrist named Janine Canan has expressed a faith that I wish I could share. I’m enough of a skeptic, enough of a journalist, not to believe it entirely. Yet I’m also enough of a believer, enough of a poet, to want to share with you her rousing defence of her chosen art:

“Poetry is an extraordinary form of communication, the most condensed transmission of information there is. In the end it is poetry that writes the real and lasting human document. Real poetry praises existence and illumines the sacredness of life. It is a form of worship and speaks the language not of society but of the Gods. 

“Poetry is a divine language the poet is in the process of learning. For such a poet the tongue is holy. Is that why many ancient Gods—Balinese Rangda, Indian Kali, Aztec Sun God—are depicted with enormous lengthy tongues protruding?”

I don’t know the answer to that. I will say only, and finally, that the original version of The Little Mermaid – Hans Christian Andersen’s version, before Disney got its hands on the story – is a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy not so much because the mermaid never gets to marry her handsome prince but because she once enjoyed the most beautiful voice in all of the undersea realm. Yet in her desperate desire to be loved, the little mermaid agreed to have her tongue cut out. She loves the prince. The prince wants to love her. But the price the mermaid pays for human form is that she is deprived of language. She disintegrates into sea foam. 

She can never speak her truth.

Namaste. Blessed be. Amen.

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