By Stan Ridgley
Words are the stuff of power.
Anyone who works with words for a living knows their power.
Well, let me issue a caveat. Anyone who works with words ought to know their power.
But of course, ensembles of words in various stages of undress are not necessarily created equal.
You choked on that for a moment, didn’t you? Maybe reread it to give it a chance, and then rightfully scoffed. It has a sort of squinty-eyed surface profundity that dissipates within seconds. Hot air. Such is the power of words, a power that is amorphous, deceptive, difficult to master, if it is at all possible to master.
One man who understands words and their majesty and their subtlety, certainly far more than do I, is our own Rick Steinberg.
Rick’s work is tremendous. To steal a line from Leonard Bishop, his sentences “stink with power.” Sometimes raw, sometimes untamed, always alluring, never dull – Rick’s graces us with his fine-edged scalpel each month, and the emotions cascade from the screen.
It is a beautiful thing to be moved by words. And it is a high compliment, indeed, to hear such praise. I never do. Rick hears it often, I am certain. Rick creates moving passages, assemblages of words describing scenes in such a high-toned style that I could never attain.
And so I learn. I learn from all of my compatriots here at Storytellers.
I fervently believe that it is necessary to respect words and their function. To understand the visceral strength in well-structured phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that hang together seamlessly in such a tight formation that a reader cannot imagine them written in any other way.
While teaching writing is not my primary function, I do provide fundamental instruction of a Strunk and White nature so as to raise the bar to an acceptable level. Before you eye-roll at me for such a rudimentary approach, let me assure you that today’s undergraduate students desperately need the salving coolness of William Strunk and E.B. White. If only for clarity, concision, and pith.
And for the pleasure of the book, for it is a minor joy to read. And to reread.
Many young people – not all, but enough to take note of – want to be creative and innovative, to think outside of that box we always hear about. I note that they must first understand the box and what it contains before they might profitably “think outside” of it. Because likely what they consider fresh and new and sparkling has been done before.
They must understand how words fit together to convey ideas, notions, fact and fiction. They must understand the communicative function of words as well as their evocative power. They must recognize tendentiousness masquerading as neutrality, entire social, political, cultural arguments embodied in single phrases – sometimes single words. They must recognize sloganeering in their own writing and arguments or face being caught short when challenged on their own lack of depth or understanding.
At the risk of agitation, or perhaps guaranteeing it, let me take a detour into the realm of the classroom, where words that characterize well-hashed issues can come freighted with all kinds of baggage.
Certain phrases can embody entire arguments.
“Widening gap between rich and poor” has become a kneejerk pejorative. Regrettably used more frequently by young people these days, supposedly identifying a “problem” that must be corrected, and never pausing in their feverish idealism to recognize that the gap between rich and poor is always getting wider, regardless of whether an economy is strong or weak.
The proper question to ask, I think, is “is everyone getting richer and better off than before in a dynamic and thriving economy?” or is the situation one in which the poor are getting poorer with no chance or even hope of improvement? These are two quite different situations, conflated by the slogan “widening gap between rich and poor” trope.
Single words sometimes embody entire arguments, relieving the user of the burden to make the point of the begged question – in my own bailiwick, “sweatshop” is one such politically and socially freighted word. As in the “debate over sweatshops.” In my classes on Globalization this “debate” is addressed forthrightly.
But in its proper terms and in its proper context.
I must tell you that the preening certitude of a young person posturing against “sweatshops” is a sight to behold. No gray area, no moral conundrums, as clear-cut an issue as anyone could imagine that puts one on the side of the angels, because who other than an evil exploiter could possibly take stand for “sweatshops?”
A part of me envies that kind of hard-boned simplicity borne of shallow naivete.
Hand in hand with “sweatshops” is usually a mention of something called “cultural imperialism,” which is merely a pejorative reaction against the introduction of goods and services and ideas into modernizing societies. Such “cultural imperialism” involves an attack on the “traditional way of life” and local culture. In my lectures to Russian students in Izhevsk and in Ufa, Bashkortostan, I meet this kind of attitude quite frequently, as if someone is compelling locals to drink Coca-Cola, smoke Marlboros, wear Italian shoes, or dine at Chinese restaurants.
The call for preserving “traditional” ways of life smacks of condescension of the worst type – it is, for example, an attitude that suggests that locking subsistence farmers in their pristine “traditional” circumstances as delightful subjects for picture postcards from exotic places is a positive.
Some students are angry and somewhat confused when it is noted that all that is being offered is a choice – to work as one’s ancestors did, ankle-deep in dung-filled water of rice paddies, or to work in a new factory, earning more money in one day than the traditional villager might ever seen in a year.
A choice, that’s all. An alternative. “Exploitation.”
Some people, professional activists among them, just don’t like the choice being offered, even as earlier there was no choice, no chance for improvement.
And rather than offer their own range of additional choices, they harass those companies that provide economic opportunity, a chance for a better life. The chance for newly empowered local workers to earn beyond subsistence wages, to then spend money at the kiosks that quickly spring up courtesy of entrepreneurs who instinctively know how the market works. The chance to utilize the new roads built by the foreign company as part of infrastructure improvement.
And so, in my classes, I refer to Nike and other firms that manufacture abroad as establishing Economic Opportunity Centers throughout the developing world, enlarging the range of economic choices open to local workers.
Some students express a kind of confused wonderment that local factories contracted by Nike (Nike does not own them) could in any sense of the phrase be called Economic Opportunity Centers. But, in fact, that phrase is more accurately descriptive as to what is actually happening when it is compared in many cases to a subsistence farming economy that it augments. Nonetheless, the point made, we shift to compromise language of a more neutral cast – Nike and many other companies that contract manufacturing with local producers are engaged in Economic Activity Abroad.
Whether that activity is in some abstract sense “good” or “bad” depends upon whom you ask – an activist sitting in an air conditioned Washington office, hands steepled, giving an interview to National Public Radio on the evils of Globalization . . . or a young foreign worker, who now has a choice and a chance to work indoors, to earn more money than before, to better his lot and that of his family.
A choice that earlier was not available.
If we then proceed from less politically charged (or at least less tendentious) premises, we can then begin to understand the actual dynamics at work, building from the ground-up. Usually, at the end of the discussion – which is usually vigorous give and take among my students—there emerges an understanding that economic activity abroad in the form of contract manufacturing has both positive and negative aspects.
Now, I have dipped into the hot, turbid political waters of Globalization only because that happens to be the topic at hand for me now, daily. And I have roamed a bit in this essay, but the theme that runs through this essay, I think, is the power of words – to persuade, to deceive, to communicate, to obfuscate.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the issues I surfaced here to illustrate the theme, I believe that those in this forum recognize more-so than most this incredible power of the medium in which they work. And whatever conclusions my students arrive at with regard to the debates at hand, they will have at least been exposed to the power of expression and the subtlety of language.
Words are the stuff of power.