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Words threatened our beautiful and peaceful island home last week, when they prompted us to ponder what possibly could be worse than having front-row seats to the discharge of nuclear “fire and fury, like the world has never seen,” including “things … never thought possible.”
Those projected horrors literally reached the end of a linguistic toolbox stuffed with concrete descriptors, such as “fire,” only to tumble over the sides into a liner tray littered with abstract hole pluggers, such as “things.” At that particular point of hyperbolic overflow, though, language also clearly became exposed as a powerful but limited technology.
Words were invented, from culture to culture, to convey complex meanings beyond the scope of grunting and gesturing. English, for example, is endlessly adaptable, with its clever alphabet and cultural openness to innovation and change.
Yet words in that language technology also are easy to convert into weapons, ranging from schoolyard taunts to oratory designed for inciting global-thermonuclear war. To manage that potential, we need people to seek knowledge, and clarity, instead of impulsively responding to purely emotional appeals about places they know almost nothing about. The old nursery rhyme “Sticks and Stones” definitely underplays a critical importance of words in our disputes and how carefully rhetoric should be metered in situations of escalating potential violence, especially mass violence.
After “fire and fury” started circulating nationally, my wife had concerned friends on the mainland contact her and seriously offer for us to move in with them for a year, if needed, to escape the seemingly imminent destruction of Hawaii, Guam and probably the whole human race.
As kind as that was of them, that emotional plea reminded me of the information haze entangling my move to Oahu a few years ago, in which family concerns arose after social media or mass media or outdated media on the internet about Hawaii somehow came into our increasingly curious purview.
I tend to think of media stories as tiny little spotlights on cleaved off aspects of much larger topics and issues. No single entity owns all American media, and no single story can deeply cover any complicated social issue in its entirety, so the decentralized nature of our free press creates diversity, incoordination and varying depths of wisdom.
For example, every big city I have visited has similar media complaints about its traffic and how — by some metric — it is one of the worst places to drive in the country and is getting even worse.
Honolulu has bad traffic at times, for sure, and from at least one perspective the worst in the country. But most of the time I drive around (at nonpeak hours), traffic actually seems pretty light for a dense city of roughly 1 million people, plus another 8 million annual tourists.
Traffic also is “worst” in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, and so on. If you only read about traffic problems here, of course, you would think traffic is an unparalleled blight on our city.
As a recurring oddity, I’ve found similar here-it’s-the-worst perceptions about homelessness, crime, public schools, drug use and even potholes in my travels around the country.
Meanwhile, a significant propellant of mass propaganda in the United States is intertwined with the development of the internet and social media, where pretty much any conspiracy theory you might want to indulge, about the fake moon landing, or Comet Ping Pong pizza, or whatever, will be backed up convincingly by a quick Google search crafted to confirm your suspicions.
Before moving to Hawaii, I only had been to Oahu one time (and that was during my two-day job interview). Before committing to take the position, I couldn’t seem to find much variation of information about the island on the internet, mainly just discourse about tourism and food and recreation. I see now that I was looking through a miniscule pinhole at the place, through an idealized prism.
After accepting the job offer, though, I suddenly had people in all walks of my life randomly dropping seeds of doubt around me, about all manners of societal concerns reportedly rampant in Hawaii, from their mediated (or vacation-limited) perceptions of the place. With these new pinholes to look through, I started to see an abundance of negativity about Oahu online, too, and the more I searched the internet about those seeds, the more it gave me, and the more my worries grew.
Oahu is a big city, with some big-city problems, I’ve found, but it’s also a pleasant place with unparalleled beauty, diversity and consistency of weather. Honolulu has an astounding amount of potential, too, which I marvel at all over the city and county, when I’m in the right frame of mind to look for it.
Most of my life – and probably your life as well – is constructed around mediated experiences like that, such as through reading or viewing or listening to mass-media channels about people doing interesting things in interesting places.
Probably very few (if any of you), for example, were present in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. The rest of us learned about what happened entirely via newspapers and television and radio and websites. Even so, that was a highly meaningful experience for many.
In other words, 9/11 was a fully mediated moment for most of us (it only exists in our minds through the media we consumed about it). We had no first-hand experience, but that day’s events have dictated our national conversations and interests for the many years since, just like Pearl Harbor memorials still stir emotions, even for people born decades after the attack on Hawaii happened.
When I have visited Pearl Harbor and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, I have felt grief as well as a sense of solace from the quality of the commemorations. These feelings arise not because I was there, or knew someone who was there, when the national tragedies happened, but because the media at those places – the chosen words – struck the right tone and made me feel connected and also sad and sanguine that we have learned those terrible lessons, the hardest of ways.
Words, like DNA, are our building blocks of humanity. They should be chosen and mixed wisely.
The president of the United States, in some respects, is another media channel through which we gather information. The primary power of the presidency, I think, is concentrated in the bully pulpit. When a president says something, we all tend to listen. He might not tell us what to do, but he does often dictate what we talk about. Only this particular president we have now is a compulsive and chronic liar, who typically shares the darkness of our country and visions of “American carnage.”
The United States does have problems, of course, but it also has many inspiring and wonderful aspects to it, especially in relation to personal and public freedoms. The more I see of this world, the more I see how much the United States has done right.
I don’t want that progress to get lost in the much smaller dark clouds of our failures. I also don’t want people to think – regardless of what the president says – that everything humanity has built, every step we have taken, especially since the Enlightenment, should be glibly tossed away in a fit of mindless bluster.
Where do we go from here with the threats to North Korea and elsewhere? Bombs don’t build and launch themselves. People do, people driven by words, and sentences, and stories about what their situation is like, how optimistic or utterly depressed they should feel about life. They are driven by words placed together into sentences, leading to paragraphs and then to stories.
Words, like DNA, are our building blocks of humanity. They should be chosen and mixed wisely. They can be dark. But they also have a magical power to express positivity, to spread love and to bring us joy. They can knock down walls and draw us together. They can bring us hope. They can make us less afraid, too.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.