The Potency of the Written Word and the Writer as a Driver of Change
When an anonymous person paid the bail to grant David Henry Thoreau his freedom, the writer was angry, appalled even. A non-conformist and a firm believer in civil disobedience, Thoreau was in prison because he refused to pay his tax, in defiance over the American-Mexican war.
Thoreau, a writer, poet, conservationist, inventor,you and surveyor was also a mis-normal in every sense, and had very few friends, one of which was the writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
When Emerson visited him in prison, Thoreau asked his friend why he wasn’t behind bars, too. Thoreau had famously said “for a Government that imprisons one unjustly, the place for the just man is also the prison.”
Once released, Thoreau went on to write what is surely one of the most influential, politically at least, piece, of not only his time, but of all time.
His “Civil Disobedience,” which states his antagonism for a government that uses his taxes to wage an immoral war still speaks through the ages, and remains one essay whose potency is as palpable today as it was when Martin Luther King took a page out of it during the American Civil Rights Movement. Or when Mohandas Gandhi read and was inspired enough by it to tailor Indian’s fight for independence from the British around civil resistance instead of armed Gorilla tactics that was the norm around the world at the time.
Writers are the gatekeepers of an era – the foundation upon which the epoch of beauty and obscenity are laid – they are a reminder of our antiquity and renaissance – the human flowery of truthful rites, and sensitivity.
“All writing are political,” George Orwell famously said. And he couldn’t have been more right. If you add the Bible and Quran to the long catalogue of writings that has changed our political society, then you see that the writer, consciously or unconsciously, are the real change drivers. But not always for good.
While Adolf Hitler was serving a prison time for treason, he began writing what would later be called “Mein Kempt” – a poorly written tirade against everything non-German, especially Jewish. And once in power, he went into great pains to disseminate the book, compulsorily making it a gift to every newly married couple and soldier in Germany.
Its wide readership and acceptance as a manifesto paved the way for Germany invading Poland. The book – a massive propaganda, was published at a moment when post WW1 Germany was uncertain about its place in the world, and this made it resonate with many and gave the Nazis some form of political authority, which they happily wielded.
The written word first emerged in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) around 3500 – 3000 BCE as a form of marks on wet clay tablets. This initially was represented by signs, which primarily gave rations to be counted, but later developed into complex combination of word and signs around 2600 BCE. The later development allowed more ideas to be passed and made understanding them much easier.
While the earliest form was developed to aid accounting, writing or literature in the Far East, China and Mesoamerica only developed as a way to record name of individuals, with an eye on the afterlife. The first known written word (not a sign) was “Meskalamdug” which stood for “Puabi, Queen,” on a stone seal in a tomb. This was meant to immortalize the deceased which in Sumerian culture meant a secured afterlife.
But the written word has since taken more importance, especially in spreading awareness and changing the status quo – from the Magna Carta, and then Johannes Gutenberg invention of the Printing Press (1440) which was a precursor to Martin Luther’s 95 thesis (1517), which changed the face of religion forever, a lot of writing has taken political bent, and has tried to either change or promote the status quo.
For most repressive Governments, the number one state enemy is the writer or the intellectual. Unlike the militias and the burgees, the writer has in her repertoire, a most potent of all weapons – a device, better than any in chronicling a people’s barbarity and displaying it in the light of history – a writer is armed, not with AK47, but with the ability to sway history towards the path of truth. The writer has the written word.
Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience hinges on the principle of Moral Contagion – which assumes that civil resistance would have a moral impetus on the conscience of others and institutions, and that the individual is interrelated to the society, and then tries to raise the consciousness of every citizen to the later.
Unlike his mentor, Emerson who believed a moral man is separate from the large society, Thoreau wrote that a just man is inseperatable from the society and that an injustice to one is a disservice to all. As a writer he tried to raise the consciousness of people, and in doing so, wrote his name into the history books.
From Trump to the Kremlin; and from Iran to Nigeria, Civil disobedience has now become the citizen’s go to rite against oppressive governments or rules, while the oppressor have also discovered a most potent weapon – disinformation, or fake news.
And it is also writers that are employed to create and pass the dis-information. So the role of the writer, in our age, has become ever more critical – you can either inform or dis-inform. But the danger lies in the fact that shedding people from the truth dulls their consciousness, and ultimately, their political will.
A writer should be a composite of independent thinking that strays not where the path leads, but where the pen tips.