The weight of words
When I was a child, words were lighter than helium.
In the sunshine of Silverstein, the music of Seuss, I could fly, like a kite loose in the summer. In the crinkly pages of Poe and Shakespeare, Emerson and Plato, I could float along like a wide-eyed submarine, plumbing the endless depths of my own mind, returning to the surface with a new treasure every time: A brand-new, no-one-had-thought-this-before word, or a new idea, or a path through the rocky deep of some human difficulty that I’d never been able to imagine before — but now, thanks to someone’s carefully-wrought, perfectly-shaped words, I knew I’d never be able to forget.
I was upgraded. I could feel it happen — of course it was more obvious then, when my mind was fresh out of the box — and I loved that feeling more than anything. Master hands had touched my mind, shown me new tools I could use myself someday, and then set me free. Glorious.
Like all beautiful art, in my own hands the words became difficult, clumsy, a thing I half-forged and threw away again and again. Thanks to school, I also spent a lot more time absorbing clunky, industrial, purpose-carved words, with uneven sides and scratches and no attempt at beauty whatsoever.
That was okay. Paint isn’t just beautiful; it can be stinky and get stuck to the floor, too, and if you’re an artist, you have to know both sides of it.
But now…now I find myself hiding from words. Because words have become weaponized, specifically by this culture. Now they’re not just wonderful or clunky. Now they’re coated in gun-0il and carry payloads.
Now they’re only crafted well for the purpose of trojaning in through the mind’s doors.
And they don’t contain tools and freedom anymore. Their ideas are hurtful, simplistic, divisive; and most upsettingly, non-optional. Writing today tells you what to think, what to say and do (sometimes making the utilitarian ethic of “you must do this if you want to fit in” explicit, but just as often leaving it unsaid, an invisible and inarguable mandate).
Whether it’s a meme from a friend, quietly insisting in five little words that rhyme too well to be argued against that these are the kinds of things people like us say and do. Or three lines from a so-called news source, carefully disguised in the trustworthy-looking old uniform of journalism and authoritatively stating its sixth-grade-book-report logic, leaving no margins in which to scribble, “Ha! As if I’d fall for that! Emerson taught me better. :P”
They are unpleasant to touch, these words. They’ve been machined, so the edges are smooth, but they have the feel of medical equipment, intended to intrude, and not usable by the owner of the mind they’re here to ‘upgrade’. These are words for controlling other people with, and I swear I’m not crazy when I say that even the tiniest missives of our culture, three words on a sign, one phrase on TV, it all tastes like propaganda now. Once you’ve noticed that chemical flavor, like I have, you never forget it.
I used to seek to write gently. I used to polish my words endlessly with silk, add filigrees only where it wouldn’t mess up the precision balance, and never, ever repeat myself unless the stanza required it.
Now my words are mostly armor-plated. Now I throw them in front of me to set off traps and flush out ambushes. Now there’s barbed-wire fencing implied in everything I say; a bitter grey tinge of BACK OFF; a warning, that I am one of the Freehold Minds, and there’s a lot of homemade weaponry on this property, so stay out.
I used to care who was ambushing me, whether this time it was corporate interests or the shadowy agents of the status-quo or — but anymore, it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s everyone. I haven’t met a word that wasn’t bullet-shaped in weeks.
I’m so tired of my friends parroting the kindergarten art of the words they see everywhere, of even people I love speaking to me with hammers and guns. They all have this expectation, that I’m just going to let them drop things into my mind. And not even things they care about, or wrote themselves: Just things, junk, trash they found laying around. Gotta fill up with something, right?
I studied arguing — robot-battling with words and ideas — in college. I did it because I love words, obviously; but also, I thought there was no way such an education could fail to be useful: Don’t we all, especially when doing anything at a high level, need to listen and be heard, share ideas and make different ones work together — ? Well, it turns out that no, no we don’t, not anymore. Arguing, even the most compassionate and friendly kind, is a tarnished discipline now, looked down upon by the oppressors and the oppressed both. It’s dangerous, subversive, and weird to defend your own mental borders, and to insist on quality in the thoughts you choose (or even to choose) to let reside in your self, and be manifest in your life and actions.
No, nowadays (and I know all this saying “now” etc. is making me look old, but it’s no accident; this whole anti-thinking atmosphere makes me feel a hundred years old and older) — nowadays, we don’t argue. We don’t put your ideas and mine together and choose what to install, individually and as a group. We don’t choose, period. We get told, and we’re encouraged everywhere to pick things we’ve been told and pass them on.
And then if someone pushes back, wants to argue, to spar with words and test that the ideas you’re handing them are actually well-made at all, well, that’s offensive and you should just give up and go away from that person immediately. How dare they.
We buy ideas now, packaged up ready-made like operating systems. There are very few to choose from, and most of them are shoddy as hell. Would you like Liberal 95 or ConservativeX? …Other options? Oh, you mean those weird hand-rolled Uthink ones…nobody uses those…Yeah, I’m aware. Also as with operating systems, updates have become mandatory and automatic, and there’s a handy option most people go ahead and click “yes” to where now you don’t even have to look at or know the content of the upgrades; they just happen, and you wake up and now you work differently.
Needless to say, this isn’t a game I can or will play. The bloat and the ill-fit of these government-approved, consumer-grade words and ideas are not good enough for me. You priests who lamented that the words of great minds would ruin the children for future attempts to control them…were absolutely right. And shit, we’re getting to the point where even I, an amateur wordsmith by any comparison I could ever make, am a freaking artisan compared to what’s available off-the-shelf; so why shouldn’t I do everything by hand? Doubt every single thing unless I wrote it?
I’m fine, I guess, with having my whole mental rig be homemade. It limits my interoperability with others, which I don’t like, but funnily enough, all of the old, hand-carved writing I was obsessed with as a child is shot through with warnings and advice about that, about the isolation of caring for your mind in a world where it’s not encouraged (or even allowed). I’m scared, sure, that the jackbooted simple-thinking addicts are coming for me any minute — but I also know that I’m not worse off than Galileo, than Machiavelli, than the zillion great writers whose illiterate contemporaries-with-power put them through hell.
And if I become as badly off as them, if Orwell’s Frankenstein comes for me and locks me in a cell, well, at least I have their ideas, which should last for many more centuries still, to help me survive it.