Coo coo cachoo; or, The Limited Power of Words

I am a great believer in words: to inspire, to set imagination in motion, to make laugh, cry, delight, wonder. I reminded myself recently, however, that I have never entirely believed that words have the power to persuade.

Do they? Have I ever by words alone shifted from one idea to another? I need to think about this. This is, after all, the season of  endless punditry about political debates. Do they really persuade sufficient numbers of the electorate to make them worthwhile? I am skeptical.

I am drafting a communication to someone I know — I haven’t decided to deliver it by speech or writing — to try to convince them to do something about something important. I have little faith it will work. But I feel I need to try. I believe in words, after all. But I’m just not sure they have enough power in this situation.

Communication, after all, is a two-way radio. Words fall on a prepared mind, or on a closed one. I read a poem recently that I (this is a constant lament of mine) did not understand. Yet the poem had won a prize. Clearly the poem’s words fell against the closed door of my mind. The judge’s mind was open, and the words waltzed right on through.

A friend of mine in law school once asked me to pretend I was a juror. He made what seemed like a sound argument regarding a financial remuneration for a victim. As the jury, I voted to agree. He then gave me the larger context, and I realized that I had been taken in: his well-delivered, dynamic, but one-sided presentation had hoodwinked me. Dang. But, I argue, it was not just his words, but the fact that I was fond of him, and that he spoke so reasonably, and that I had no chance to consider an alternative presentation — I had, after all, agreed to this artificial stage.

Communication is not just a radio — it’s a thing between people, and anything between people…well…can be complicated. If my microwave beeps that something is done, it is reporting on the ending of the time I asked it to keep while warming up a dish. If I ignore, it will beep again, as it’s programmed to do. If my husband deems something is done, he may then ask, But is it warm enough for you on the inside? Or some other thing that makes this a give-and-take. But he might ask me as I’m in the middle of a thought, or reading a complicated sentence, and I might grunt a reply, or fail to respond at all, which will irritate him momentarily. And so it goes.

Words are nothing outside of the context of the human interaction. Can I convince you of this?

Even in the silence of a room and the soft swish of your hand on the page of a book, the words you read are the mind of another, passed through the paws of the publishing world and some printy machine thing, through a book purveyor, and into your hands on a quiet evening. If you are not distracted. If the words conjure enough of an image or idea that your mind clasps it like a coffee cup. If it is written in a language you understand. If you are not too sleepy. The author doesn’t know all this, of course. She writes what she writes and you, reader, are a mere mirage, a hoped-for angel of delivery of her words to your mind. A ghost of eight percent of the retail price you paid in her hand. And if it is a book trying to persuade you to change your life? Well, it’s a gamble, isn’t it?

But I can’t not try to persuade this person to do this thing — because I believe in words, if not, perhaps, in the power of this particular walkie-talkie set-up, this game of telephone between me and him. His handset might be turned off. Or in this game of telephone, when I say “would you please consider…?” he might hear “Woodrow Wilson.” “Woodrow Wilson?” he’ll puzzle. “Why is she talking to me about Woodrow Wilson?”


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