The Power of the Word?

There’s a great article in yesterday’s NY Times that looks closely at how we are to understand the word ‘platform’ when used in different contexts. It compares Bannon’s use of it when discussing his “platform for the alt-right,” suggesting that Bannon’s website provides valuable support and, by extension, credibility, to a fringe movement; and it discusses Zuckerberg’s perception of Facebook as a way to “connect the world” without impinging on what it has to say.

Setting aside this loaded and fascinating example, this article really served to remind me of how limiting a single word can be. As an artist who uses language as her medium, I’m never very far from the fact that all language, having been previously defined before I get to it, can be limiting. But by focusing on a single word, this article helped me to get closer to a deeper understanding of what I think many of us see as a problem in how we use language today: the fad of brevity.

There’s Twitter’s limit on characters; Facebook’s six-line feed; texting; the single sentence feeds at the bottom of your newscast; e-mail; the elevator pitch; the popularity of books that punch you in the face with their opening lines and pepper you with tight, tense language from there on out. We all have a love-hate relationship to these inventions, including me, but while we’re all pretty good at articulating why we love them – they’re fun, they’re immediately gratifying, they can be seductively efficient – how good are we at describing why we hate them? And how important is it that we do so?

I’m starting to think it is important to try to articulate the lack that these modes of communications present, because if we don’t, we lose the power to object to them as strongly as we support them. As a novelist, I’m often asked to describe my novel. This always sends me into a bit of a fluttery panic, knowing that the person who asked would love a one-line summary – might even tolerate as many as a three – but really doesn’t want to hear what always comes to my mind first and foremost: If I could tell you what the novel was about in a few lines, I wouldn’t have had to write a novel. Instead, I tell them that my book is about an earthquake hitting modern-day San Francisco and bringing it to its knees. This, of course, leaves everything important out, and leaves me, as an author, feeling like I have one chance to grab a reader’s hand while we’re both floating through space.

But this is more than just about books, though book-length works and their brethren are a huge part of the picture. It’s about how we communicate, how much time and energy and attention we invest in understanding others. Even today, while on vacation, I’m thinking that I’ll be spending the day skiing, but skiing is not at all sufficient to describe what we’ll be doing. I’ll be taking lessons with my kids and husband and sister and brother-in-law and niece and nephew, and together we’ll be negotiating or individual and collective relationships and experiencing our individual and collective ineptitudes and bruised egos on a privileged American slope beside hundreds of other nameless individuals who are thinking every manner of thing as they swish or plow or fall down the mountain. A novel could be written about the experience, I’m sure. But even a paragraph would tell you so much more than the more conventional way of describing our vacation plans: We’re going skiing.

I have no idea what the solution to all this might be. Well, that’s not entirely true. I think we simply need to read more, to talk more, and to write more. The depth and power and beauty of language can’t be seen on the surface. Like scuba diving, language unfolds her beauty only once you immerse yourself in her sea. But getting people to take that dive, when they are used to getting by just fine, thank you very much, by skimming the surface, is a challenge. To say the least.

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