What Can a Writer Say When Words No Longer Have Meaning? by Santi Elijah Holley
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, March 28th, 2017
"It’s my duty to keep a vigilant watch... to the veracity of what is being said."
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer. When I was a boy I invented stories about animals who could talk and who became friends with boys like myself. As a freshman in high school I started a zine, documenting all the perceived abuses and injustices committed by teachers and the school principal. I enlisted other students to contribute to my zine, but most of the copy—as well as printing and distribution—I handled on my own, which eventually wore me and my meager resources out. In my junior year I took a writing class with a teacher who was once a handler for Hunter S. Thompson, and I was captivated by her stories of dragging Thompson’s semi-comatose body across the country on various speaking gigs. My teacher, Annie (we called our teachers by their first names), got on us every day about proper grammar, correcting us every time we said we were “done” with an assignment.
“A steak is done,” she’d say. “You are finished.”
In college I continued to enroll in English and creative writing courses, and stayed up late nights composing theses on the evils of factory farming, or the influence of film on the Black Panther Party. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the written word was, in my opinion, uncontested and infallible. I learned to treat each sentence—indeed, each single world—with reverence, for it held the power to sway public opinion, or to influence an individual’s relationship to the world around him or her.
Years later, I am still in love with writing. I’ve published short stories, critical essays, personal essays, and journalism, in various publications, both large and small, online and print. I am no less fascinated by the written word than I was when I first started putting pen to pad. Whether composing my own work, or reading the work of others, stories have helped shape me into who I am today. As someone who is both proud and humbled to call himself a writer, I feel as though it’s my duty to keep a vigilant watch—not only for relatively innocuous things like the proper use of grammar, misplaced apostrophes, or dangling modifiers—but to the veracity of what is being said.
After the 2017 presidential inauguration, as I’ve read and listened to the statements coming from some of the highest-ranking officials and spokespeople, in the most powerful nation on earth, I’ve been confronted with a question I’d never imagined I’d have to consider. When these men and women, whose words are anxiously listened to, translated, and disseminated all across the world—when these people who are tasked with the great responsibility of providing clarity during a time of transition and unease—go on to challenge the very concept of such things as “facts” and “truth,” I begin to wonder, what can a writer say when words no longer have meaning?
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer, on January 21. “Both in person and around the globe.”
After this and other statements he’d made that day were immediately proven to be false, Spicer responded two days later, in his first official press briefing.
“I believe that we have to be honest with the American people,” Spicer said. “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”
As a journalist, I know the importance of fact-checking. Before I turn in one word of copy I go to great lengths to double-check and provide sources to my statements, but sometimes, admittedly, I’ll miss something. Sometimes an unverified claim goes unnoticed, and I’ll submit a draft to my editor with one or two mistakes. Fortunately—for me and my editor, both—we are blessed with fact-checkers, whose sole job it is to catch these mistakes. And even then—horror upon horrors—an inaccurate statement will make it past the fact-checker, past all the assistant editors and managing editors and senior editors, making it all the way to print. I’m not the only writer who has suffered the embarrassment of learning too late that they have reported something inaccurately. So what do we do then? We print a correction in the next edition, apologize for our error, and move on.
Rather than apologize for their errors, the current administration has chosen instead to double down, to challenge the very concept of truth. Rather than appear unprepared or disingenuous, they mean instead to take us for fools, or even adversaries. To “disagree with the facts” is not only unacceptable, it is utterly ridiculous, and disputes the clear definition of fact: “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” (Merriam-Webster). This sidestepping is not exclusive to the press secretary. Further elaboration was provided soon after by the president’s advisor and counselor, Kellyanne Conway. When asked, by NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, about Spicer’s spurious statements, Conway responded, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
When we devalue words, we devalue language. We undermine communication. Language has long been used for political gain; these examples are not unique. From “friendly fire” to “collateral damage,” politicians and war generals excel in inventing euphemisms for atrocities. Educated citizens, by and large, can decipher this political jargon. When truth itself is challenged, however, we are left defenseless, for how can one demand the truth, if truth is open to interpretation?
“Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
George Orwell published these words in 1946, in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” The world was still recovering from and trying to make sense of the Second World War. Orwell knew the destructive power of words, as did anyone living under the semantic spell of the Third Reich. Eight years earlier, in his 1938 book, The Tyranny of Words, economist and writer Stuart Chase made an observation that could easily be applied today: “Bad language is now the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues.”
Recent years have given us such political proverbs as “trust, but verify,” “sexual relations,” and “known unknowns.” Whether used to intimidate rivals, deny infidelities, or justify invasions, words are used and twisted to the user’s advantage. Words, some say, are living things—as adaptable to changes in the environment as the Monarch butterfly. Truth and facts, they say, are subjective, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Words may indeed be adaptable, but empirical facts are not. When we strip words of their meaning, we contaminate language, giving arsenal to despots and demagogues. By using defamatory language against immigrants, people of color, women, the poor, et al., we incite violence, as we have seen during and following our last presidential election. If language was created to bring us together, we must defend it with as much fervor as those who wish to use it to divide us.
As a young boy, I fell in love with writing, because I recognized it as an efficient and honest way to communicate with the world around me. I approached language with great care and respect—a respect that remains with me to this day. I still hear Annie’s voice in my ear, sternly correcting me each time I say I’m “done,” when I mean “finished.” Words are not the nails of civilization; they are the hammer. Words are how we make meaning of our experiences, individual and shared. We use the written word to speak for us, and for others, when other forms of speech aren’t sufficient. We make the invisible visible, the impossible possible. But what can a writer say when words no longer have meaning? How do we speak out when words are no longer enough?
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Header image courtesy of Bill Dunlap. To view his Artist Feature, go here.
Santi Elijah Holley has contributed to Tin House, VICE, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. A recipient of the 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship for nonfiction, he lives in Portland, Oregon.