The View from My Section: The Mysterious Power of Words

There’s a book that came out in March, 2015, by best-selling author and journalist Jon Ronson, most known for his comedy writing style, entitled, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.) The compelling thing about this book is that he tells various high-profile stories about people who have been publicly shamed by their comments, including on the Internet, be it on Twitter, Facebook or others. The penalty for their apparent mishap was a barrage of negative remarks sent forth oftentimes by the same media format used for their initial unpopular comments, the Internet. He interviews many of the subjects of these debacles and learns how this form of public retribution affected their lives even years later.

It got me to thinking; I’ve known for a long time that there’s incredible power in the written word. Some books and newspapers have been known to initiate change on their own, such as the Washington Post with the stories on Watergate and the fall of an American President. Another example is George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) that introduced a different perspective on the future, and government influence on society. The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) by Anne Frank, a young teenager whose profound words written while in hiding during the Holocaust brought vivid images of a time the world will hopefully never forget or repeat. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was enormously influential in conveying antislavery sentiment in the decade before the Civil War began. Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle (1906), about the Chicago meat-packing industry presented in a fictionalized novel, was so impactful it lead to the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration. John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about the Oklahoma migrant workers during the Great Depression, led to congressional legislation to benefit farm workers. There are far more examples than this, of course.

So, understanding the power of words should come as no surprise, one would think. But our children are growing up in an age unlike anything we could have ever imagined, where thoughts can be conveyed electronically, and within seconds be seen by thousands, and eventually, even millions of people. Twitter redefined how people the world over could communicate on a global scale their mere opinions about basically anything. Those same opinions in the right forum can make or break reputations, make new businesses soar or fall flat on their faces. Sheer comments on a Facebook page, for example, can ruin a teenage reputation and impact a life many years later.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that at no other time in history, to my knowledge, has the written word carried so much power. And we all know power in the right hands can move mountains. Equally, that same power in the wrong hands can cause great destruction; whether it’s hurting an individual, destroying a business, or otherwise harming people behind the veil of anonymity.

How can we teach our children the pitfalls of a communication form that they’ve known most all their lives and think nothing of? That’s the challenge, and unfortunately, many young people and older ones alike have made mistakes before realizing the power behind their thoughts put into words. On one hand, it’s nice to know one’s opinions can be heard so easily. It’s not so nice if those opinions happen to be misguided, or worse yet, even wrong in some cases. And to think this power lies in the hands of anyone with enough technological savvy to create a Twitter or Facebook account, which in this day and age could be a five-year-old. That’s pretty alarming to think about.

Only time will tell where communication goes from here, and how it’ll continue to change and impact our lives and the future of our world. It’s hard for me to imagine just what my children will be dealing with, much less my future grandchildren in their lifetime, when it comes to communication. Hopefully, it will be that beacon of light that shines in the darkness and ultimately makes the world a better place for all. Perhaps I should tweet that…