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In the Beginning was the Word

Berni Dwan writes: Where would we be without the written word? The evolution of hieroglyphs to cursive script to digitally printed letters has brought us to a point in history where we are so in the “now” that the past (as LP Hartley reminds us) really is a foreign country. Without the written word, would we be better storytellers? Would we be better listeners? Would we have better memories? Yes, they did things differently back then, but their motives were the same as ours. The thread was always language, the language that created and wrote our histories.

As the mechanics of writing, papermaking, and printing made the written word in the shape of ideas, stories, doctrines, beliefs and theories more widely available, that method of providing information to the growing masses of the literate was harnessed by those religious and political groups who were most determined to sell their message. Some famous examples include the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, published in Germany from 1923 until the end of the Second World War, Mao’s “Little Red Book”, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas More’s Utopia. These encompassed the good, the bad, and the unaccountably evil, and large print runs made them ubiquitous.

Every religion jumped on the in-tray and filled the out-trays with prolific abandon. Once the paper and print thing had been figured out, the race was on; holy books and tracts, racist rants, arguments to maintain the status quo of inequality, slavery and free trade spewed out. Religious righteousness, moral outrage, hatred and misogyny flew hot off the press to an impatient reading public. In our own time, social media has facilitated an alarmingly worrying resurgence of this brand of unbridled “free expression”.

As levels of literacy increased, so also did control over reading matter; this of course we know as censorship. But as technology improved, mass dissemination of written matter multiplied exponentially. The day arrived when books could be printed quicker than they could be burned; the international movement of people made censorship a joke in all but the most totalitarian states, and of course the pervasive World Wide Web has left censorship effective only in places like North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Ireland, of course, has had its own struggles with religion and censorship. Consider the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum; a document that ignored the Enlightenment and idealised the organisation of society in the Middle Ages. Highly influenced by the philosophical thinking – called Thomism ‑ of Thomas Aquinas, it strongly coloured the role of the Catholic church in Ireland, most evident in the principal of subsidiarity, whereby responsibility for education and healthcare were handed over to the church; and we all know how that turned out. Not such a good idea then, allowing the writings and thoughts of a friar born in 1225 to have such an impact on the formation of a modern country.

Frank Hugh O’Donnell’s The Ruin of Education in Ireland, published in 1902, interpreted the Catholic church’s control of education in Ireland as a British conspiracy to keep the Irish intellect stunted. I came across this in chapter 25 of The Books that Define Ireland by Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin, and it’s a theory that is hard to disagree with when you peruse the books discussed in the following chapters – Nell McCafferty’s A Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Case, Noel Browne’s Against the Tide, Fintan O’Toole’s Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: The Politics of Irish Beef, and, most tellingly of all, Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan. This combination of memoir, investigative journalism and literature kicks back bravely and unapologetically at an Ireland that needed a good kicking.

But the kind of books that played a major role in shaping history were foundational texts. Martin Puchner, in The Written World: How Literature Shapes History, describes foundational texts as binding people to them by demanding service and obedience. “They told a story of origin; they set their readers apart from their neighbours …” Religious foundational texts include the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, Buddhist sutras, and the Hindu Vedas. And now remember that one of the most volatile flashpoints for unrest, Jerusalem, is where three sacred scriptures – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an, are concentrated in a single location.

Texts that set you apart are not a great idea then. Look at the persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar and the genocide of the ancient religious minority of Yazidis by Isis in Iraq; Mynamar’s military even flooded Facebook with hundreds of fake accounts sending out incendiary comments about Rohingyas. A more recent story that has emerged is the “re-education” of Uighur Muslims by the authorities in China. How many fewer flashpoints of violence there would be if religious foundational texts did not drive the non-reflective angry mobs to commit despicable acts in the name of archaic jiggery-pokery.

What many of these texts have in common is the perpetuation of dubious origin myths and pseudo-histories; a dangerous mix for readers who have never been given the opportunity to develop their critical faculties or engage in rigorous analysis. These texts are perfect for the binary audience; 1 is good; 0 is bad; there are no grey areas. Satire, they would not get; constructive criticism would mortally offend them. They would reject Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, George Orwell’s Animal Farm or, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and take grave offence at Oh! What a Lovely War.

Secular foundational texts would include The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, the United States constitution and the 1916 Proclamation. Again, many secular texts have been hijacked by fanatics. I am guessing that neither Marx nor Engels would have enjoyed living under Stalin. Look at all those gun-toting fundamentalists in the United States who constantly recite the archaic Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. That bit about “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally” in the 1916 Proclamation, has yet to come to pass in Ireland. Our own Irish constitution, composed in 1937 by a right-wing, conservative Fianna Fáil government who kowtowed to the Catholic church, has seen some important amendments in recent years, reflecting a more modern, diverse and tolerant society.

Of course, the Catholic church preferred catechisms to bibles because they standardised doctrine instead of allowing people interpret the bible for themselves. Some of us are old enough to remember the fear of going to school having not learned our catechism questions for homework – back then, it was called “education”. Another considerable chunk of the school day was taken up with learning Irish, a complete waste of time for myself. My fascination with and undisguised love of the English language was of no account in an education system run by fanatical gaeilgeoirs. Knowing Irish grammar was deemed more important than just about anything else; well it was probably on a par with the contents of the green catechism and just a notch up from mental arithmetic and a completely biased version of Ireland’s fight for freedom. Education indeed. This was the biggest educational faux pas, or should I say botún (thank you Google) made by Éamon de Valera, who compounded the centuries of damage done by the British to our native language by making it elitist and mastery of it the only pathway to many careers. He ruined an entire educational system for the sake of Irish, force-feeding it to generations of reluctant. It worked; most of us have the cúpla focail which, translated into English means being able to say random phrases like “Tá Mamaí sa chistin.”

But consider this; maybe it’s better to commit nothing to print and commit everything to memory instead. Remarkably, Puchner explains that Socrates regarded writing as having some patent disadvantages. “You couldn’t ask a piece of writing follow-up questions; words would be taken out of the context in which they were spoken, which would make them bound to be misunderstood, beyond the control of their author; words would survive the speaker’s death, so that he would be unable to refute false interpretations that might arise later.” We can thank Plato and his clever idea of dialogues as a way of preserving Socrates’ legacy ‑ otherwise it would have been lost forever.

Interestingly, in his book Assault on Reason, Al Gore faces up to the problems of the diversity of media platforms in a very Socratic way, by questioning the passivity of the listeners and viewers when it comes to the one-way street of radio and television. He fears we have all become too used to receiving and not giving, hearing and not responding, consuming, and not questioning. Oddly enough though, Al Gore sees the one-way communication being replaced with a good old-fashioned two-way conversation again with social media. He believes social media has brought back the conversation; no longer two-way but rather multi-way. Twitter and Facebook are the most obvious examples, with blogs coming a close third. But on the downside, it is an unedited, free-for-all, ideal for an audience who consume without questioning. This became frighteningly apparent in 2016 with the passing of Brexit and the election of US president Donald Trump. Trump knew how to manipulate social media; he cut out the middle manager and the editor and spoke directly to his audience.

Now it’s one big spaghetti junction of conversations and information exchange – the official term is narrative texts – mediums for telling a story or providing information. You can read newspapers, magazines, journals, and books online or in hard copy. You can converse over Skype, WhatsApp, mobile phone, land line, and Facebook. French philosopher, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) emphasised that narrative texts were not one thing, but a weaving together of different things (in our case – radio, television, World Wide Web, social media, YouTube, Netflix, written word). He did this in a book called Mythologies (1957/1972) and he called it intertextuality – meaning that nothing is unique or distinct. Barthes was certainly ahead of his time when it came to understanding media.

We are all familiar with the language used by Nazis to describe Jews. Imagine if they could have harnessed social media? Robert Bowers, who recently murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was an avid user of Gab, an alternative version of Twitter popular with white supremacists, white nationalists and likeminded types who have been removed from mainstream social media sites. The type of posts he made would sit well beside the Nuremberg Laws or Nazi Race Classification that ranked ethnic groups on a scale of one to five – one being Aryans or Übermenschen, the most superior and advanced group which needed a lot of room or Lebensraum to live. Five were Jews; classed as lower than Untermenschen and, according to some antisemites, “Christ-killers” who should be exterminated. Minority Tutsis would be turned on in a similar manner by the Hutu majority in the Rwandan civil war in 1994. Gradually, many of the German Aryans began to believe in Hitler’s racial hierarchy. Is it not astounding though that one of the earliest papermaking facilities in Northern Europe, was established in Nuremberg in 1390? Nuremberg, the scene of so many book-burnings by Nazi fanatics in the 1930s.

Language and literature can be kidnapped or hijacked by any powerful group who need a tool to spread their message or create their ideal. Cleverly misleading phrases like “axis of evil” and “fake news” have entered the lexicon. Putin defended his annexation of Crimea by saying that most of its inhabitants were Russian-speakers; Hitler used the same excuse when he took the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia largely inhabited by German-speakers. Apartheid South Africa only provided education through Afrikaans for black schoolchildren, a language that was not going to open many career opportunities. Only this year a law was passed in Israel that removed Arabic as an official language, downgrading it from being co-official with Hebrew to being an auxiliary language. Currently, there are very dangerous tensions between English-speaking Cameroonians and French-speaking Cameroonians; a problem directly created by colonialism.

Throughout history, writers have fled their countries to escape imprisonment or death, journalists who criticise regimes have been murdered (Saudi Arabian Jamal Khashoggi being one of the most recent), online hatred has spawned even more hatred, books have been banned in non-democracies, bookshop owners (in some countries) have mysteriously disappeared, and propaganda is alive and well. Twisting language and literature to promote the unforgivable, the downright stupid, or to reclaim some ridiculous romantic past (Stalin hijacked Gorky; Hitler hijacked Nietzsche) may work in the short term, but in the long run it will never prevail, and yet it is a mistake that is constantly repeated.

27/11/2018

A radio show discussing aspects of this essay will be broadcast on Near FM 90.3 on January 22nd from 6 to 7pm. Podcasts to all shows can be accessed from the homepage of Berni Dwan’s website, www.oldfilibuster.com. Martin Puchner’s The Written World: How Literature Shapes History is published by Granta Books.