Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Our Word is Our Bond

The National Library Paris, home to billions of words!

Everywhere we go we are surrounded by words.  We hear them, we see them and we give voice to them.  They can be used in practically every imaginable situation that a human being can participate in, provided, of course, that the person in question is not deaf and/or dumb.  Words are specific to our species - homo sapiens. They mark us out from our brother and sister animals who can communicate in some lesser fashion through sounds and movements.

Words can be either spoken or written.  Both forms are powerful beyond measure, but perhaps the spoken word is the more powerful of the two because it is more immediate as the main constituent of interpersonal communication.  Words can lift us up or drag us down, or wound us deeply or even heal our hearts.  They have the power to break confidences - after all, we all know people to whom we would never confide certain information as they have loose tongues.  Words also have the power to build life-long alliances - after all, we also know people for whom their word is their bond, their most sacred oath.  These are they who always manage to keep their word.

I remember the actor Paul Scofield in Robert Bolt's wonderful play on the life of Sir Thomas More wonderfully declaiming the following on the theme of word as bond: "When a man takes an oath," Sir Thomas explains to his daughter Margaret in a crucial scene, "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water.  And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loath to think your father one of them."

Words can cause conflict between friends and neighbours and even between nations.  Words can make or break us, both as individuals and as a society.  As a teacher, I am well aware of the power of words both to break down and to build up; to annoy and to compliment; to hassle and to cheer; to encourage and discourage, and to wound and to heal.  The other day I was involved in a small intervention between one sixteen year old boy and his peers.  This student had mocked two of his classmates for being what he termed "cappers" ( that is, "handicappers" or handicapped because they had SNAs (Special Needs Assistants) for their ADHD).  This term had hurt the two boys in question  and we talked it through in a small group and reached a resolution.  Thankfully, the intervention worked.  Again words worked their magic as they were able to rectify to a great extent the bullying situation.  I am loathe to use the word "heal" here as I don't believe anything of that depth happened.

I am writing these words here now, having been mulling over in my mind the unthinking recent words of the Lord Mayor of Naas who left himself wide open to inciting racial hatred by declaring on local radio that he would cease to represent black Africans because of their gross bad manners and aggressiveness.  Literally, within minutes the radio stations received many complaints and Fine Gael, one of the Government parties, to which the said mayor belonged, distanced itself immediately from his remarks.  The upshot of all this was the mayor's resignation, and rightly so.  In fairness, no alone did he resign, but he also apologised profusely.  Again rightly so. The media has widely covered this case here in Ireland.  Here are his contrite and sincere words spoken on our Marion Finucane Show some Saturdays ago:
The comments were totally the wrong thing to say.  I retract every single word of it and I am so genuinely sorry.  I am not a racist.  What I said was not what I meant in my heart and soul.  I didn’t put enough thought into it.  Obviously I was expressing my own personal view of dealings I had with regards to council workings with some people but I knew what I said was wrong.  You cannot, you just cannot paint an entire continent with one brush by saying something like that.  You just can’t do that.   That’s unforgivable.  I should have said that I would not deal with anybody who is aggressive.  We have aggressive Irish.  We have aggressive other nationalities.  But what I said was that I wouldn’t deal with black Africans and that’s wrong, you can’t say that.
As I was listening to these words I was almost cringing, not because these words were insincere - they were indeed sincere - but because the man had made such a stupid unthinking mistake which no one in public life should make, and then stupidly declare those views publicly on radio.  The poor man has learnt a hard and harsh lesson, and indeed rightly so.  Words are powerful, very powerful and they should never be used unthinkingly.  Likewise, here in this blog, I have always done my utmost to use temperate words and express equally temperate and balanced opinions.  Words can be used to incite hatred of others, to break down relationships rather than building up relationships and connections, which I firmly believe that life is all about.  Previous to this, I have been writing my comments on Dr Fritjof Capra's wonderful book The Web of Life which is all about exactly that, the building up of connection between all of us who inhabit this little blue planet.

In the Irish language we have a wonderful proverb or seanfhocal which runs: "Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón."  This proverb translates as: "It is often that a person's mouth broke his nose!"  I have dealt with many angry pupils over the nearly 32 years of teaching, young men who have possessed very short fuses indeed, and I have often seen them sporting many a black eye for their troubles.

And so, dear reader, ask yourself a few questions.  Do you use temperate words?  Do you weigh your words before you express them?  Do you "shoot from the hip," rather than pausing to think before you speak. What have you been saying lately? Have your words been positive and uplifting?   Have they been ones that build up rather than tear down?  After all, the words you speak can have a profound effect on the people they reach.  Are you encouraging or discouraging?  Are you building up your children, your spouse, your friend or even the stranger you pass on the street? Or are you tearing down your own family with words of criticism, bitterness and judgment? Are you causing the destruction of your self-esteem by speaking ill suited words over yourself, your health and prosperity?

Let me finish with a quotation, this time from the great novelist Joseph Conrad.  Let us contemplate them, because our words carry our very self in all its authenticity in their utterance:

Words have set whole nations in motion… Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.

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