I’m a writer. I believe in the power of language—for good and for evil. Words matter. In the last decade, the nation has been swept by masters of language, first to believe in itself, then to terror and rage at a huge and overwhelming enemy. Language speaks to the soul, and a master can carry you beyond reason, beyond caring for the truth, wishing only that the power you feel would go on. I’m pissed by those who muck it up, whether by jargon or ignorance; I’m terrified by those who use it for evil, and I’m appalled by those who dismiss its power and value as “just rhetoric.”
When I taught writing, whether composition, professional, or creative writing, I introduced rhetoric with this bit of flash fiction:
Reuben and Hector had to stay after school; they discussed the problem at recess. It wasn’t fair – they hadn’t been talking, not really – just exchanging necessary information.
“My mom said if I got kept after again I couldn’t go out for a month!” Reuben exclaimed.
“Don’t tell her. Tell her you stopped at the creek on the way home,” Hector suggested.
“Naa—she’ll find out.”
“Ya, Ol’ Prissy Smithy’ll be calling your ma just so your ma understands exactly what you did.” Hector agreed.
“Your ma, too.”
“Who’s that kid over there?” Hector frowned.
“Dunno. One of those kids they transferred in from Donnerville Elementary.”
“What’s he watchin’ us for?”
“Dunno. There goes Sammy talking to him.”
“How come Sammy doesn’t have to stay after?” Reuben exclaimed, watching. “He was talking just as much as we were.”
“Heyu Sammy! How come the teacher didn’t make you stay after?”
Sammy glanced their way then turned his back on them, and went on talking to the strange boy.
“Must be a friend of his,” Reuben said.
“Yeah, Sammy always was weird.”
“Did you see that shiny shirt he wears? All purple with funny designs. Like some alien from outer space.” Reuben made antennas of his forefingers, wiggling them above his forehead.
“Bet they’re talking about us, too.”
“Heard one of those Donnerville kids grabbed Jimmy Green’s pack and ran off with it—laughing up a storm.”
“Didn’t get into a bit of trouble for it either.”
“Teacher’s pets, the whole bunch. ‘Now you have to be nice to the new children,’” Hector mimicked Mrs. Smith.
“Yeah. Coach even made one of them pitcher. Pitcher! Can you believe that?”
“They’re taking over the place. Ain’t fair.”
“Ain’t. And we’re the ones getting screwed.”
The bell rang, signaling the end of recess. Reuben and Hector walked toward the door, watching the pair approach from the other direction.
“Whatcha looking at?” Hector yelled.
“He was. Git him!”
The point was to demonstrate how easily language transforms a stranger to an enemy—like a ball rolling downhill, gathering energy as it goes. And how often over the years I’ve remembered that exercise as the left and right called dissenters of their own party “traitors” and “sellouts” Those are the words of war, designed to raise fear, promote unity, gather power. Fear is more virulent as the coronavirus, and those who use it to attack dissent, attack democracy.
I’m reminded over and over, as I listen to political rhetoric, of a picture I’ve long remembered but cannot find. It is an etching of the head of Christ, facing right—a Janus head whose left facing image is a negative of the right—the head of Lucifer. If anyone is familiar with this picture, please let me know.
It does not take rocket science to recognize when your fear is being played upon, but it needs to be taught and taught again. If the past six years hasn’t taught us that, we deserve everything we get.
Next week—the power to waken our better angels.