Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

The weight of words

I begin to doubt the power of words.

This frightens me. My whole life is built on words–reading them, writing them, interpreting them, gushing over a select few of them. So I cannot condemn all words in all forms–just the dialogue and discussion and discourse that is supposed to elevate us, bring clarity to confusion, bring relief from isolation and grief.

I begin to feel that these kinds of words are just words and worse, that words have become a distraction and a ruse to keep us from acting.

I know that when we grieve, as so many must still be grieving in Colorado and now a new many are grieving in Wisconsin, we need to share that grief. I know that venues like Facebook have become a way for people to feel solidarity in grief.

But I am weary of grief that takes place against a backdrop of inaction and stagnation. Of grief that swells and grows while conversations and debates fall into the same patterns of stillness. I’m weary of grief that deserves better, of dead and dying who deserve better, of those left behind who deserve better, from all of us.

Mostly I’m weary of hearing these same responses to tragedy, well-meaning though they may be, and knowing that I will hear them again, because nothing will change, and if nothing changes then surely we will be tweeting and posting and condemning and analyzing all over again soon. I’m weary of being able to see a future stretching forward like a highway that narrows toward the horizon, the view so much clearer than I wish it was.

And yet of course I continue to use words, because they’re the only weapon I’ve ever really felt comfortable using, and they’ve brought me comfort in dark times. I use words, perhaps, to reclaim them, to convince myself that they can still mean something, even when these days so many of them sound empty.

I want words to mean something again. I want them to have weight, and I want them to propel us forward, not weigh us down.

I want us to have real conversations that don’t degenerate into finger-pointing and nationalist rhetoric and red herrings and slippery slopes. I want us to actually reflect: about guns, about mental illness, about safety nets and the lack thereof, about racism and fear of the Other, about anything and everything that could have had some bearing on these two people and the dozens before them who walked into public spaces and opened fire.

It might take us a long time to come to any conclusions. It might be painful. But at least all elements of the conversation would be laid bare on the table.

And maybe at the end of it all some laws might be passed. Not the kind of reactionary window dressing that so often follows tragedy, the sort of legislation that’s simply designed to appease. Maybe the laws would actually have teeth, would effect real change.

All of that seems like far too much to wish for, though, so I’ll just quietly hope that words regain some of their power, and that they bring some small comfort to those who need them right now, even if I can’t stop wishing that they could, and should, do much more than that.



2 comments on “The weight of words

  1. Mike
    August 6, 2012

    When asked to comment on the Net generation for a friend’s book, I noted that while many young people feel more connected to events through the immediacy of information, they also suffer from the delusion that they can affect events through commentary. Twenty years ago, those desperate for change wrote letters and took to the streets. Now they post a snarky comment on s blog and say, “Look how I have contributed to change!” and feel their work is done. It leads to high intellectual involvement with zero physical effect. And now that politicians know that every act will have as many detractors as supporters, there is no reason to take strong action on any side–and no reason to feel abashed for criticism, as it can be easily drowned out. A surfeit of opinion leads to political invincibility for those willing to push
    an agenda–or ignore the greater good.

  2. gradland
    August 8, 2012

    Mike, I’m also frustrated by the way that so many people seem to confuse commentary with discussion. And the whole like / snark culture that Facebook has given birth to–it seems you can either unconditionally love something or you can tear it apart (often in a particularly mean-spirited way), but there’s no space for thoughtful critique.

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This entry was posted on August 6, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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