" /> 'The pen is mightier than the sword.' Can written language really be so powerful?

Mao Zedong, the Chinese statesman, leader and hardheaded realist of Communist China, is perhaps most remembered for his belief that ‘Power flows from the barrel of the gun.’ In this one succinct quote, Mao encapsulated the derisive view which anti-intellectuals and reactionaries often display towards language and the corollary that it is power in its raw form – seen in the determinants of military power, wealth and access to other tools of intimidation and coercion – that underpin a society or nation’s route to success. Yet such a view is often opposed by those who utilize written language in its various manifestations to generate change, transformation and influence in the course of our daily, social and political interactions. For better or worse, this latter view is probably the more resonant one, given that the course of human history and societal developments have been informed to an irreversible and indelible extent by written language and the persuasive power of its visionaries.

For the jaded and cynical, written language is perceived as bereft of political power and influence in the halls of realpolitik. Such views argue that written language merely provides false hopes and dashed dreams to would-be revolutionaries and visionaries. Often, the cynics would point to the many historical incidences of raw political power triumphing over written language. Thus, history instructs us, so the cynics argue, about the fruitless memorials submitted by Sun Yat Sen to the powerful and reactionary Manchu officials of the Ching Dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century. Likewise, history instructs us of the failures of prose and advice written by Caesar Augustus of the Roman Empire to his incompetent general, Varus, who most infamously caused two Roman legions to be decimated by Gaelic tribes at the beginning of the first millennium. Hence, written language does appear insignificant, given the many instances when its power has waned in the face of resistance by those most capable but indifferent to its possibilities.

Furthermore, skeptics would argue that even if written language has its intrinsic value and power, such power is inherently limited to the scope of social commentary and reflection devoid of actual transformative capabilities. This is particularly the case when the written text merely discusses the pressing issues of the time without providing practical directions to their alleviation. Into this category of useless writing the skeptics would include even great novels written by literary giants such as Charles Dickens. Thus the skeptics would argue that beyond commiseration with the travails of the protagonists in the ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, there is little that we can expect from them. To expand on the pun, we can expect barely a nickel or a dime from such written prose since even the readers of their eras would be hard-pressed to sieve out useful ideas to address the conditions of poverty, exploitation and child abuse which Dickensian novels expose. Great literature, in this sense, is merely that: a temporary elevation of our aesthetic sensibilities sans its application to real life social matters or societal conundrums.

However, the cynical and skeptical schools of thought may have inadvertently exercised a limited and reductionist view of written language. In selectively identifying only the weaknesses of written language, the cynics and skeptics ignore the more salient and influential characteristics of language. Perhaps they fail to appreciate the power of written language – coupled with charismatic leadership – to effectively shape and influence the structure, values and tenor of our most powerful institutions. We speak here of the many instances when written language, delivered appropriately and in timely fashion – the same way as rain falls on seeds resting in parched ground – can find resonance and bloom into an effective and sustained transformation of society. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have A Dream” speech, written and delivered to an audience by one of humanity’s most powerful orators – comes easily to mind here. In the segregated American nation of 1963, the words of “I Have A Dream” sparked the dry tinder and groundswell of social outrage and injustice, ushering in the delivery of the civil rights movement and racial equality in America which endures today. Thus, contrary to the cynics’ dismissal of it, written language has the capacity to usher in revolutions and change which no amount of institutional control or regressive polices can reverse. The pen, in this case, is certainly mightier than the sword for the influence which its master practitioners can wield when using it in the course of pursuing justice and equitability for their fellow men.

This view of written language and its powerful influence on our mindsets, values and behavior is similarly observed when we review literature and its role in shaping or redirecting our experiences and attempts to decipher and live our lives fully. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes it best in his Nobel Prize lecture and essay. Literature and poetry, Heaney argues, reflects a redressing of the human spirit. It celebrates the common values and aspirations of humanity to live, love and dream of a world governed by the tenets of human decency, communitarian ideals and fraternity. Thus, the long tradition of poetry throughout humanity’s long association with it – replete in the lays of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and T.S Eilot’s’ ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘Four Quartets’ – share the same essential role of inspiring readers and particularly the youths and intelligentsia of each era to review and reiterate their common link to generations past and future. Written language, in this sense, constitutes Eilot’s idea of it as a form of cultural tradition and transmission of both our debt to generations past and obligation to future generations: in writing and committing ourselves to the muses, we reaffirm the experience of being human.

…as a form of cultural tradition and transmission of both our debt to generations past and obligation to future generations…

Thus, Mao Zedong may have been too hasty in affirming the realities of hard power. Many of us may know and accept that there are areas of human life and activity that written language can barely influence. Yet, we also recognize that written language has its appeals and niche. In doing what it does and in doing what they do best, the written word and writers engage humanity in the most essential activity of human experience: the dance of abstract ideas, unrealized aspirations and hopes given tangible form and reality. Hence, it seems that in our world driven today by the onset of the information and knowledge revolution, the written word and language remains integral to us. By using and interacting with it regularly, we partake of the views, dreams and reflections of those before and around us and in doing so, become the purveyors and participants of the creative and sublime act of writing ourselves.

Written by GP teacher, Augustine Chan, Distinction Tutorial School

Also, check out the creative writing courses from Distinction Tutorial, The Writing Room and Decoding and Writing.