About 20 years ago, we truly escaped the mechanical limits of the printing press and acquired the ability to move more or less infinite numbers of words anywhere we wanted, as quickly as we wanted. I would be interested to know the word count of the entire Internet. It would be one of those ridiculous statistics with exponents and long strings of zeroes.
As I watched the unraveling of Ferguson, Mo., something struck me about the protesters’ raised hands. That image quickly is becoming a wordless icon in a world with a limitless capacity for verbal expression. Hands raised in surrender are the new hoodie for those who rightfully lament the tragedy surrounding so many young African-American men. It is far too soon to pick sides on what happened to Michael Brown, but the symbol already has a life of its own. It hardly matters what the facts in Ferguson turn out to be. And that’s the problem.
The more we speak in symbols and not words – in gestures, attire, emoticons, “likes” and hashtags (I don’t count those as words) – the less we truly think about or rigorously debate the things that divide us. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, but someone once said anything that fits on a bumper sticker is too simplistic. Bumper stickers are looking like dissertations these days.
These symbols that now pass for debate become like flags for people to rally behind, and from their opposing camps they hurl abuse at each other, without ever doing the hard work of persuasion or – here’s a concept – compromise. Even when we do get down to verbal debate, it devolves into stock phrases, tired epithets and well-rehearsed talking points, often lobbed anonymously back and forth in comment threads on the news of the day.
I don’t have any brilliant answer for the death of real discussion, but I will keep trying to heed the advice of many a parent to a whining preschooler: “Use your words.” They are, especially in our day, an infinitely renewable resource – even though they sometimes seem awfully scarce.