Friday, October 05, 2012

Made of words

In the beginning, there was probably no word. More likely, it was a sound, or a tiny movement. Perhaps, it was no more than the invisible blink of a formless divine eyelash. Perhaps, it was a rogue electron. Or perhaps, the 'beginning' as we know it was the moment when we decided to be us - speaking animals with words as their primary currency.

Perhaps that is why we tip-toe around words. Because we trade through words before we give of our time and energy or possessions. We bind ourselves in word cages - legal agreements, contracts, the Constitution, the penal code. We conduct our rituals through words -- wedding vows, mantras, Quran readings, election manifestos and parliamentary speeches, obituaries. And of course, we educate and entertain ourselves with words - songs, fairytales, religious kathas, radio programs, and of course, books. Where we cannot easily depend on words, we turn to image -- election symbols, cave paintings, films.

So yes, we have reason to fear words. Words run us. And we can only make the world run the way we'd like it to, if we can control words. So we seek to contain the words that frighten us. We try to erase them from public view, and eventually, public memory. We hope they will die out, though we aren't yet sure what the world will be like without those words, without their meanings, without the people who utter them.

It is hard, of course, to control words. Harder than it is to control images. People talk all the time. They fight wars and give up their lives for the sake of the words they use, and the meaning those words lend to their lives. You can't shut up every whisper of the night. You can't fight lullabyes. You can't fight the language of dreams. You can't get rid of words that are written in sand or snow. The less tangible they are, the cleverer, the stronger. 

But you can fight words printed on paper, or spoken out loud on a stage. You can threaten to kill them because you can kill the people who speak them, write them. And so, you try.

In our own way, we are all part of this conspiracy to get rid of words. It's not just the right wing. It's every wing. We know of pseudo-religious militants who kill writers. We know of re-education programs in technically non-religious nations. We know of democracies who arrest people for writing a pamphlet. 

But we also know of ourselves, don't we? 

I will confess. I have thought to myself that some writers and speakers ought to be banned. Because I have thought of the consequences. I support controls on hate-speech after all. When a court summons a leader who is trying to cause rifts between communities, I am glad. I consider it a sign of sanity, of safety. When a leader is jailed for exhorting people to kill, I am relieved. 

Sometimes I begin to think, with what face do I say, 'Let's not ban books'? How can I say, 'Let us not discriminate between what is worthy of a ban and what isn't'? 

I worry about this question. Is it right to ask for uncompromised free speech? Where do we lay down the law? Free Speech can't be free if it is constrained by ideas of what is acceptable and what isn't. If, for instance, somebody believes in sex with minors, or minors born with mental difficulties, and writes a book extolling the idea, what are we to do?

If somebody writes a book putting forth the notion that parents should have a right to get rid of unwanted children at any point -- before or after birth -- what are we to do? If someone puts forward a proposition that anyone who eats the meat of fish should be quartered and drawn, what are we to do?

And if we are not to ban these ideas, what are we to do? How can we say that other people should not seek bans on ideas that we find harmless, or even necessary? 

I struggle with this question. Because hate speech worries me. Child pornography worries me. The extolling of plastic surgery as a lifestyle choice worries me. But if you are stupid enough to kill or maim yourself or someone else just because a book/advertisement/website is telling you to, who is to blame? The words, or you? And if it is you, what good will banning the book do? 

If you are a killer -- or even just a damager of property -- and the people who run the judicial systems in your country have not been able to deter you, what will be accomplished by banning the books that inspire you?

On the other hand, a child is made or unmade by the words s/he is exposed to. How do we hold a person responsible wholly for their crimes without also holding those responsible who formed their minds? 

Like I said, I struggle. But first of all, we must answer this question: Are we willing to let each person take the fall for his actions, or are we going to allow him to get away, using another man's (or woman's) words as his excuse. I suspect, when we have held each adult to account to his actions, we might fear his words a little less. 

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