*Pic: Image from HERE
Human language started to develop in Africa 100,000 years ago. It changed our brains and our evolutionary fortunes and allowed the ascendancy of our frail and fractious species. Language became the currency of thought for good and bad.
In the service of Shakespeare words re-imagined the whole world to delight and astound us.
In the service of a spellbinding demagogue like Hitler, words brought out the very worst. Maybe despite the tedium of the election campaign it is a blessing we do not have great orators in Australian politics.
When I was a kid in the middle of the last century, playground gibes and insults were usually met with immediate violence. But sometimes, gentler souls would retaliate by reciting, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
That always seemed to me, a very foolish strategy, more likely to provoke the sticks and stones than to deflect them.
Words were not then seen as mightier than the sword at the Mayfield Juvenile Detention Centre, aka Mayfield State Primary School, in Launceston’s gritty northern suburbs.
I was by nature a young man of many words but learned from experience that if I came out with a good line I would be pushed and shoved and threatened “What’s the matter with you cock? You swallow the effing dictionary?”
True to the old adage, the words didn’t hurt me. But I realised they could get me bashed up. And they still can.
My enemy was a large kid named ‘Fatty Turner’. (Spot the PC violation.) After school I would walk hours out of my way to avoid him, often getting home in the last light.
I don’t know why he hated me. I don’t think I use big words in front of him.
Why bother? He was thick as the half-brick he once chucked after me as I successfully outran him.
Perhaps, I reasoned, he resented my relative academic success. So by grade four I had stopped coming top of the class or anywhere near it because that could certainly get you bashed.
I learned to keep my light modestly hidden under its bushel. Sadly, that strategy misfired and got me bashed instead by the teachers who thought I was deliberately tanking.
‘Could do better.’ Whack.
‘Must try harder.’ Thump.
The teachers didn’t realise that a smart kid in the Mayfield Juvenile Detention Centre could only be safe inside high security protective custody.
Try walking around alone in the exercise yard after you had just won an essay competition.
You might as well have worn glasses. “Hey four eyes!”
I know many of you will be thinking that I exaggerate. Well, sometimes I do but not this time.
I know it sounds Dickensian but that’s what state schools were like in Tasmania in the fifties and early sixties.
Ask the survivors. Brutal warders and brutal inmates were the order of the day within the cyclone wire of those grim institutions of Tasmanian State Education.
In all the years since I have never once even driven past my old primary school.
Perhaps I am still in post-traumatic shock. I’m not sure whether, like Guantanamo Bay, Mayfield should be torn down, or like some dreadful death camp, preserved as a monument to those who suffered within its walls.
High-speed half a century to the bloody events of the past week or so and words are still the bane of my life.
I haven’t until now written a word professionally nor spoken one, about Orlando nor about the confounding murder in England of a brilliant young female Member of Parliament.
How to state the obvious without offending someone? But how can I write inoffensively about that act of supposed ‘homophobic hatred’ in Orlando, which now looks like it was perpetrated by a man who was gay (or wanted to be) and was such a conflicted personality that we would once have just called him ‘a nutter’ (spot the sustained PC violation here) and not agonized too much about his motivation?
Well now of course you shouldn’t say ‘nutter’ or ‘crazy’ because that would be really hurtful to insane people who also have feelings, even if they are planning to shoot someone.
Had the Orlando murderer been an Islamic terrorist, as Donald Trump devoutly wished, it might have been simpler. Likewise in Britain, had the assassin of Jo Cox, the Labour MP, been in full possession of his wits, as well as his right-wing literature, it would have been an open and shut case of terrorism.
But it turns out that the perpetrator was what the British tabloids would have once called ‘not the full quid’. Denied such colourful expressions as ‘loony’ or ‘barking mad’ the papers now can only awkwardly speak of him as ‘having special needs.’
Sadly along with his low IQ those needs included a screwy fascist ideology, a gun and a knife and the crazy urge to kill someone.
We know there is a connection between crazed acts of violence and belief systems, whether political or religious, or even more scary, both.
Nor is Islam alone in that connection. In my reporting life there has been the madness of Jonestown, the slaughter at Golden Temple of Amritsar and the lunacy of the appropriately named Waco.
And in Belfast in the 1984 I met men who claimed to be Christian but had deliberately fired on and killed young Catholic girls being bussed to school in a Protestant area to encourage peace and co-existence.
I’ve seen it all too many times.
I’ve seen the bodies floating in Lake Victoria because one tribe simply didn’t like what another believed and words weren’t enough to express their hatred.
I tell you, the belief-driven crazies reach across continents, cultures and creeds and I’m damned if I know what to do about them. How can we even have a vigorous discussion about it without using the indelicate language of commonsense?
The American Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson warned us two hundred years ago, apparently in times of freer expression, ‘As men’s prayers are a disease of their will so are their creeds a disease of their intellect.’
The question is I suppose, whether it is belief systems that drive men mad or is it an existing weakness of the mind that leads some people to find meaning in doctrine?
Or could it be both?
Way back in another time, but not necessarily a better one, at the Mayfield Juvenile Detention Centre I received the most robust early instruction on the danger of words.
It was a salutary lesson I have never forgotten. I know only too well the power that words have to generate fury and the trouble they can cause.
At least I have learned from my own history and so even as I write now, it is always as if ‘Fatty’ Turner is still waiting for me in the fading light at the end of every infuriating passage.
“What’s the matter with you cock? You swallow the effing dictionary?”
But you know, I think I preferred the primal violence of Fatty Turner to the mealy-mouthed postulations of the word police.
*Charles Wooley is a legend of Australian journalism, partly through his history with Sixty Minutes