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the value of words

The Value of Words

All of the philosophies we have ever espoused, all of the religions we have ever invented, all of the governments we have ever established, and all of the words we have uttered in the last twelve thousand years of becoming civilized humans did not prevent Vladimir Putin and his sycophants from invading Ukraine. We love our words, but are they able to save us from ourselves?

While Earth’s other species are still subject to the limitations of instinctual behavior, humans have developed an intelligence far beyond dolphins, chimpanzees, and other animals we consider the most intelligent, that is, the ones that seem to think and behave the most like us. But it is words that make us different from anything that has ever existed on Earth, or that we know of for several light years into space. We love the words in the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Wordsworth, and the explanations from our scientists as to how we came to be and how we function as living entities.

Words certainly move our emotions. They make us laugh or they make us cry. They move us to love someone or hate someone. As stoic as some of us try to be, it is hard to ignore the profound positive and negative effects of words on us.

Yet, when it comes to war and human conflict, do our words and our good intentions fail us? For at least 100,000 years, when we began to turn our grunts and squeaks into communicable utterances, we have loved words. There is no human communication without them, and without them we would not have built our global civilization. Even when we do not say words, they are implied. Regardless of the language we speak, they are constantly in our brains guiding our thoughts and motivating us to do good or evil.

On the other hand, in spite of their strength, even like love itself, words can be weak. Words are our conveyors of information, and all of us want to inform and to be informed. We want every word that we utter in a conversation or speech, that we write in an article or essay or book to be so profound and meaningful it will change someone’s action or outlook on life. Regardless of someone’s culture or language, all humans have the same basic needs and emotions and utter the same expressions. But when it comes to getting our aggressive tendencies under control, how many of our words, our statements, or our many utterances are powerful enough to overcome thousands of years of cultural influence?

Perhaps early in our years of using language we began telling each other things that helped get us through the perils of natural selection. We had to be cautious and defensive. Life was harsh and dangerous in our formative years. We had predatory animals to contend with and in a hunter-gatherer community it was generally the brave men and women who went out to do battle with them. These warriors came home with the spoils of their encounters, and sometimes with battle scars such as cuts and bruises or broken bones. So, we came up with words that expressed the concept of the hero in order to thank and glorify those who bravely fought the enemy.

By the time we began to settle into cooperative communities and the threat of predatory animals was diminishing, the idea of the hero who risked his or her life for the well-being of the community was firmly established in our psyche and reflected in the words we used. So, as we began to fight each other over such things as resources and hunting territory, those who fought the warriors of other communities became the heroes. Our words praised their skill and bravery. Over the years, elaborate uniforms were designed for them to wear. Titles and honors were bestowed upon them. Military heroes became national leaders. Our words of praise for our warriors have followed our march of civilization right down to today.

We continue to revere our military heroes because we, unfortunately, continue to fight wars. It is appropriate that these men and women should be honored for risking their lives for their nation. But given our many centuries of witnessing the death and destruction caused by wars, one wonders why we have not learned to seek other ways to solve our diplomatic problems.

We humans are stuck in a morass of aggressive behavior that we know is stupid and wrong, but so far, we have not been able to talk our way out of it. We talk and write volumes about trying to prevent mindless conflict, but our words seem to have little effect in determining a long- term solution to the age-old problem. As our population grows, so do the number of conflicts, large and small, going on every day.

The problem is that words are not as strong and motivating as emotions. If one of us, as an individual, as a member of a religious sect, or as a citizen of a nation feels a dislike toward others, words often cannot pull us out of it. As the saying goes, it is hard to use reason to change the mind of someone whose point of view is not based on reason to start with.

Philosopher David Hume put the situation this way: “Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will…” His opinion is that emotions are stronger than words and even though it was someone’s words that might have led to an unreasonable attitude in another person, once it is established in that person’s mind, reasonable words are often not strong enough to make the person change. The person can only be motivated by a change in emotion, for example turning the emotion of intolerance into tolerance.

We must, therefore, learn to get the most strength we can out of our words. One strength of our words is in how they stimulate our minds to be creative. Depending how we use them, they can create rocket ships that carry us into space or create emotions that make us love each other or hate one another, or they can bring back good memories or bad ones.

Words can say “I love you” or, as we have seen too often in our past, they can command armies to attack a city and kill every man, woman, and child in it. They express the wide range of human emotions from giving one’s life for another to murdering a multitude of innocent people in an uncontrolled lust for power.

Is there more we should or could be doing with our words? As beautiful and necessary as they are, can they get us out of the political and military conundrum we humans have gotten ourselves into with too many paranoid dictators with too many big weapons. Harsh words are the norm these days. Do we all really hate each other that much?

The words and actions of some of our national leaders are pushing civility to the brink with their threats, their hateful looks, and saber rattling. Some of us have taken the meanness of a playground bully to new heights. International diplomacy has gone from discussing mutual interests beneficial to all parties involved to ‘if I do not get my way, I will threaten to attack you’.

Our technical language, however, is flourishing. With words and drawings engineers can build roads, bridges, and very tall buildings. Scientists are able to write about new discoveries that help us understand how our bodies and brains fit into our vast and complex universe. Our wordy novels tell the story of our foibles, our weaknesses, and, fortunately, a few have happy endings. We write our autobiographies to let the world know we were here and had a particular set of life experiences different from anyone else. We certainly make good use of our words.

So, what are we to do with our words but keep speaking them and writing them, shouting them, splattering them on big signs, or whispering them as secrets that no one else is supposed to hear? We obey them or ignore them depending on the life experiences that led to our particular set of biases and point of view. Can we hope that they will ever be strong enough to save us from ourselves?

How often do words save lives? If diplomacy is carried out in a fair and sincere manner in which both parties want to reach an agreement, words can stop conflicts and save lives. Problems arise, however, when the parties are so set in a particularly stubborn point of view that they automatically disagree on nearly every issue being discussed. In this case even if the words are strong and sincere, the parties just do not bother to listen to each other or try to understand what is being said.

Speech and kind gestures are all we have to get our emotions under control, and we must make the best of these mental tools. A few years ago, physicist Stephen Hawking summed up what sounds like our human ultimatum: “Whether the language transmitted sense of responsibility is sufficient to control the DNA transmitted instinct of aggression remains to be seen. If it does not, the human race will have been one of natural selection’s dead ends.” Hawking and many others who have expressed the same warning are telling us that we must replace weapons with words. Even if the words splattered across the newscasts by belligerent national leaders and their sycophants are insulting and mean-spirited, they are far less dangerous than bullets or bombs.

We must somehow talk and think and negotiate ourselves out of this scary existential situation we are in at the present time. The point needs to be iterated: there are too many deadly weapons in the hands of too many belligerent and paranoid people. Perhaps our only hope is to wisely use our minds and communication skills to instill in ourselves a strong enough sense of responsibility to move us beyond the aggressive tendencies that have become too normal in our relations with each other. As time goes on, the truth of Hawking’s warning is definitely worth thinking about.

Yet, in spite of the warnings by Hawking and many other concerned people, there are some among us who are arrogant enough to think that whatever they do, their lives will continue to proceed in an orderly fashion. They do not care about the repercussions of their actions on other people. Their blend of arrogance and paranoia leads them to blithely believe they can keep building large armies, and building and testing deadly weapons and keep threatening to use them. They act as if the rest of the world is an enemy set on destroying them and they had rather risk political and military suicide than agree to join in constructive diplomacy that would greatly benefit them.

What these people and all of us who are victims of the paranoid-aggressive point of view need to understand is that the world, from individuals to neighborhoods to nations does not need to be a place of warring factions. Millions of people in communities around the world live in peace both within their community and with their distant neighbors. Even most national governments around the world are at peace with their neighbors. This should be the normal way people live.

But for too many of us the idea of having an armed nation with bigger weapons or a bigger army than our neighbor is so ingrained in us that it is going to take a complete change in thinking to bring us together into a cooperative and harmonious global community. Although more and more we are realizing that we need global harmony if we are to survive as a species and not blow ourselves into extinction, we seem to be a long way from achieving that goal.

The animal instincts of flight or fight, kill or be killed are certainly strong in us. They have been with us since the beginning of our evolution from primates and are deeply ingrained in our psyche. But what we need to get through into our heads is that we are no longer instinct-driven animals and we need to stop acting like them.

People change. It is a matter of maturity, maturing as individuals and maturing as a species. Like young children, we are very impulsive. We see something we want, such as a piece of candy or a neighboring country, and go after it before we stop and analyze the long-term repercussions of our actions. Our immature impulsiveness has caused the deaths of millions of people in our history, and it is still doing it today.

Is it possible that now that we are so near the brink of a regional war exploding into a much larger conflict, that perhaps we could take a closer look at a more humanist and less rigid, less dogmatic point of view on which to base our relations with each other? The wise advice of Abraham Lincoln seems very appropriate for these times as it did during the tragedy of the American Civil War: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…we must think anew and act anew. We must dis enthrall ourselves.” His words were strong when he spoke them and they are now. Then, as now, we must break out of our old thinking, dis enthralling ourselves from the national biases, prejudices, and national arrogance that cause so much political turmoil.

Surely, we are not so set in our ways that we cannot learn from our past mistakes. History has shown us time and time again that wars accomplish nothing but murder and destruction. Oh, yes, there is a short time of celebration and rousing speeches by the winning side. Then when the dust settles the armies start preparing for the next murderous conflict. But wars inevitably wind up coming back against the people who start them and we have seen that all wars do far more long-term harm than good.

War mongers are reviled. They are considered the villains of history and an unfortunate example of how humanity is still struggling with itself to keep our evolution progressing in a positive, cooperative, and productive way. People who start conflicts are an embarrassing setback in our progress toward global peace and harmony.

These people think they can literally get away with murder. But the world sees them and records their vile acts. Another Lincoln quote should be read by anyone scheming war or any type of crime: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves…”

What will be your historical legacy? Will it be like Abraham Lincoln’s who did his best to reconcile the warring factions in the American Civil War? Or will it be like Adolf Hitler’s or Vladimir Putin’s who invaded another country for no apparent reason and caused the deaths of thousands of people?

This time of needless war and political bickering, if we survive it, will be considered a time when we let our paranoia and aggression take control of our common sense. Some of us stopped listening to reason because our decisions were not based on sound reasoning. To a person who refuses to consider any point of view but his own, even the wisest words such as symbiotic cooperation have no meaning.

The majority of Earth’s citizens do not raise armies and are not in a position to, nor have any desire to, start a deadly conflict. Most of us just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace, to be productive citizens, and have friendly relations with our neighbors. We do not want crime and we see no need for war. Yet we are forced to become at best concerned observers and at worst victims of a conflict we did not start and want no part in. The vast majority of us want very much to be free of wars and the rumors of wars!

But who starts wars? Is it each one of us who elect the politicians who make the laws for our nation. Or is it the sycophants who support a dictator who tells them they must fight to preserve the peace and tranquility they have achieved under his rule. Those of us who blindly obey a leader are pitied and laughed at by history. As William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry VIII: “O! how wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors!” it is a problem humanity has had for many centuries.

It is a sad spectacle to see the followers of a ruler acting as if they are enthralled over every empty word the ruler utters. These people are taught that they must believe everything the ruler says. Have they long ago forgotten how to think for themselves? Do they fear that if they do not show an adequate amount of acquiescence they could be imprisoned or executed?

For those who respect the sanctity of human life, it seems as if the world has become a cold and impersonal place. As scientist and author Jacob Bronowski noted we are becoming deaf to suffering. We take killing for granted. There are deadly conflicts going on somewhere in the world all the time. We talk about them and write about them, but all our words can do is report them. We have not been able to use words to stop them.

Will tyrants and war mongers ever listen to the voices of those who do not want war? Of what value are our words when it comes to stopping the inhuman acts going on around us constantly? Writer Aldous Huxley said: “The most shocking thing about war is that its fighters and its victims are individual human beings and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”

These are our fellow human beings we are called on to kill. War turns human morality upside down. In his poem “The Man He Killed” Thomas Hardy expresses a poignant truth about how in war one man kills another who, if they had met somewhere other than a battlefield, could have a drink together and be friends. Why do our vainglorious leaders insist on using humans beings as “pawns in their game” especially when they threaten to use nuclear weapons as part of their political agenda.

Numerous people have stated that a nuclear war would devastate civilization as we know it. Are we so stupid that we could allow this to happen? Surely, we are wise enough to prevent our own self-destruction. Are we not many times wiser than a hapless moth that bangs into a light bulb so often that it eventually kills itself? We humans are smart enough to know that we need to stop doing he things that could eventually kill us.

For many years, thoughtful people have tried to help us see the wisdom of stopping war. As Thomas Hobbs in his book Leviathan reminds us: “For it shall never be that war shall preserve life and peace destroy it.” Wars do not bring peace, just more wars, more death of our fellow humans, and more destruction of the things we have worked hard to build.

Immanuel Kant spent years trying to understand how the more reasonable aspects of our human nature could be strengthened so they could replace our innate weakness and selfishness. Yet, Hobbs, Kant and many others have only had words to combat our inner aggressiveness. And, so far, the wisest of our words have not cured this deep-seated neurosis we have.

So, what must we do to stop this madness? Of what value are our words in saving our lives? All we can do is keep uttering words, lots and lots of strong and wise words that we hope the war mongers will listen to and think about. How strong can we make our words? How strong can we make our case to end war?

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