Shakespeare has been the greatest, most revered writer and playwright of the English language; and I think it is safe to say that he still is, if you like, the “CEO of English language and literature”. But what is the point in me stating the blatantly obvious? We are all well versed with his achievements within the world of literati and the subsequent theatre renditions of his masterpieces. A man with an exceptional flair for language, a man who could employ language in the most effective manner, a man who crafted stories injected with effervescence and dramatic irony; I could go on and on and still be unsuccessful in encompassing all of his attributes as the brilliant writer that he was. Yes, I think the man is a genius, but my article is not meant to be a long and winded ode to his ingenuity or his creativity, it is meant to be a response to a heretically trivial statement I overheard one fine Saturday morning.
It so happened that I was visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, to treat myself to a weekend of everything Shakespearean. As I was meandering around the house that he was born in, clicking pictures of the floorboard (yes, so woebegone am I) I overheard a tour guide wistfully saying to his tourists, “Language and the art of words seemed to have died with this man,” whilst everyone nodded, muttering in agreement. Not wanting to seem intrusive by butting into the dialogue with an unwanted opposing opinion, I kept mum (not an easy feat as I usually blurt things out more often than not) and let the procession pass.
Annoyed at the imbecile’s blitheness at a subject that required utmost seriousness I decided to vent out my frustration in the only way I deemed sensible; chuck my shoe at him…ha, no I didn’t. But of course, you must be wondering why I would feel the need to resort to such aggressive levels considered highly improper…or just simply if I have signed up for anger management lessons. But you see, I was aggravated by one fact and one fact only: how he, like so many others in today’s day and age, had failed to wake up and smell the coffee.
Words are weapons
Politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, English teachers…all of them possess a latent talent, a powerful talent which when unleashed can have serious impact – the power of words. The art of words did not die with Shakespeare; it only diversified with time, intensified with age and is now ubiquitous in society, as we know it. Right now, at this very moment, as you watch an advert on television, as you flip through the pages of the newspapers and/or magazines, as you listen to a public figure make a speech, as you hear your opponent make their point in a debate, as you read this article…you are being manipulated by language.
The John Lewis adverts shown at Christmastime every year, the one with the little boy who could not wait to give a present to his parents and the recent one with a snowman courting a…snowgirl? The advertisements released during Olympics with athletes advocating their favourite brands (which is meant to be the reason behind their success) and adverts encouraging viewers to donate money so a malnourished child in Sub-Saharan Africa can have water to drink. But media manipulation took an all new low (or high…depending on which side of the fence you’re on) since the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in Newtown which sparked off debate about stricter gun control laws, as a result of which the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) which promotes the rights of citizens to bear arms released a controversial video wherein President Obama was called an “elitist hypocrite”. The likes of you and me might condemn a video of such nature that is biased and supports an “eye for an eye” solution, you and I might be able to step back to take a macro view of the situation, but what about the citizens who were directly affected by the massacre? The parents of the deceased children, the victim’s families, teachers who witnessed this crime against humanity, other children who saw their peers, their friends bleeding to death in front of them? How do you think the emotionally scarred would react to a provocative statement like, “Are the President’s kids more important than yours?” What would they think when the narrator goes on to ask, “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” The fact is that they aren’t thinking, they are responding emotionally, irrationally, being manipulated by NRA’s rhetorical questioning and reacting in the following way:
The story at the other side of the fence
Bearing in mind that NRA officials and lobbyists put this video together, what went on in their minds as they charted out a plan to further convince and gather as many supporters as possible? Is it just a cheap maneuver on their part to emotionally exploit the people? Or has it all been misinterpreted and is actually a sincere and pragmatic solution?
Well, I saw a movie last weekend called Thank You For Smoking – a film that follows the efforts of Nick Naylor, a lobbyist who speaks on the behalf of cigarettes. He works for a tobacco company responsible for 1200 deaths a day. Undeterred from being labeled as a mass murderer, he perceives himself to be a man of “moral flexibility” who performs all that is asked of him and strives to excel at his job of manipulating youngsters to take up smoking. It’s addictive, it’s classed as “cool”; you could say the job is almost done for him. How else will he pay for the round trip tickets in a private jet equipped with phenomenal services offered by the beautiful stewardess Stephanie? The man’s got to earn his living…fair enough.
But this movie is a valuable insight into what goes on in the minds of politicians, journalists, and lobbyists; and through the story of Nick Naylor reveals the story of people who use language to their benefit albeit at the expense of others. My favourite scene from the movie is when Naylor describes in all simplicity to his son, the nature of his job and others like him. A scene that perfectly contextualises the topic of language and how it can be modified and adapted to suit the context, the purpose and the target audience:
It is all down to the viewer, the reader, and the consumer to exercise their own discretion at the end of the day and not be influenced by exploitation of any kind. Think of the Mob’s reaction to Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar (Shakespeare again), think of how easily they were swayed by Antony’s oration, how quickly they switched sides from supporting to Brutus to wanting to kill him for killing Caesar who they agreed prior to Antony’s speech was a tyrannical ruler. The only difference between then and now is that everything is at a much larger scale – with many Antonys – Rupert Murdoch, Barrack Obama, Wayne LaPierre and a far bigger Mob and thus, a more urgent need to think for ourselves and to not be swayed in our decisions.
“To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean.”
Measure for Measure 2.4.118, Isabella to Angelo