The first word I learned to read was s-o-m-e-o-n-e written in chalk on the blackboard in my first grade class. It took us kids some time to puzzle out the phonetic sounds of the letters as the teacher delivered us into the universe of written language. Once we arrived there was no turning back.
Of course we already knew the word’s meaning. We had heard it spoken by grownups and on television shows. Language, story and meaning come long before writing, reading and academics. But in that instant in childhood it struck me that words have a life of their own away from us, on blackboards, in books and nowadays streaming in digital form across the universe of cyberspace.
Lately I have been trying to recall the vividness of summer when I was a kid—the overwhelming sensations that the season brought on—and wondering how to get back those feelings. Perhaps my mind and body were taken over long ago by the spell of written language, dragged from the primeval forest of subjective knowledge into the exalted book stacks of libraries. Maybe the phenomenon of the Internet will help save that old forest.
Our entire rural elementary school body of about 200 was called outside one day to greet two Chinese students who had moved to Georgia. They spoke no English and appeared as alien to us as visitors from another planet. Each student bashfully greeted the brother and sister and shook hands with them, peering for a moment into their wide, smiling faces. It is astonishing to consider how provincial we were compared to today’s kids who can Facebook across the world from their cell phones. The Internet exists as the closest thing to the all-knowing god of my Baptist Sunday school classes.
The social distortion that comes with easy access to other cultures brings anxiety, especially when the woes of distant communities appear as up-close and personal to us as the troubles of friends and family down the street. But this anxiety is the price people have always paid for an education in the never-ending expansion of human sympathy and understanding. The advent of documentary photography is thought by historians to have brought an end to the wars against Native Americans, just as war footage led to disenchantment with the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, the unifying powers of language and the media can wreak havoc upon societies that a dominant culture does not understand or value. Rather than trading information and goods, the historic impulse has been to divide and conquer. The castle walls of Europe, now historical curiosities only, stand a testament to the slow and brutal path toward unified civilization.
Hopefully children growing up in the world of instant communication and information- gathering may one day see war and conquest as just old-fashioned ways of making sense of the world. We live in remarkable times when a small town news story written in Idaho about captured local son Bowe Bergdahl is presumably read by his captors, a world away in Afghanistan.
I recently word-searched “cultural creatives” to learn more about the millions of people in the world taking advantage of the many new digital means of communication to break away from nationalistic thinking and reshape their destinies based on principles of justice, creativity and re-considered spirituality.
I found myself on a newspaper website in Gisborne, New Zealand, formerly called Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa in the Maori language, “The place where Kiwa—of the Tākitimu waka—stood.” The Gisborne region, population 34,000, is seeking clean-industry and high-tech businesses, rather than exploitative industries that destroy natural environments and lead to increased disparities in wealth.
“The entrepreneurs, scientists and cultural creatives that innovate and develop world-leading products now choose places that are about the lifestyle they want … ,” writes Manu Caddie of the Gisborne Herald. “There are some basics of course: clean water, reliable electricity, broadband and transport options, decent schools, participatory democracy and a vibrant cultural life all seem pretty important.”
Sound familiar? This could have been copied from the Sustain Blaine (County) website. I for one am feeling a tribal affinity with the Maoris of Gisborne.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org