Words as a Weapon

Adam Mertens (Canada, UWCSEA 2010-2012)

As every UWC and IB student worldwide knows, Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is not just a requirement for graduation, it is invaluable link between the courses we so religiously study and the world beyond IB. Often times we find ourselves leaving the classroom with our heads full of more thoughts and questions than we had going in, and perhaps it is this method of learning that breeds the creative thinking that UWC strives for. For every grade 11 student in UWCSEA, one week in January is dedicated to TOK, with topics that range from the environment to the impact of culture to religion.

In the opening speech by Professor Kishore Mahbubani (Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore), he suggested that nuclear weapons are currently the most powerful weapon humans possess, and if war were to break out now, humanity would certainly have cause for worry. However, I can’t help but dwell on the familiar cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. There are a few qualities about words that come to mind when I consider the power they possess:

1. WORDS ARE SUBJECTIVE

Often their meanings are shrouded in a lack of understanding or a differing perception of their meaning because of culture and society. What the word faith means to a Catholic is different from a Hindu’s which in turn is different from an agnostic’s.

2. WORDS CARRY A DIFFERENT WEIGHT

In a psychology experiment by Loftus and Palmer, participants estimated the car in a video to be traveling at a different speed when it hit another car based on the word used – hit, smashed, bumped. The principle of these words is the same, but their severity is altered, leaving potential for manipulation of words.

3. WORDS COMBINED CREATE IDEAS

Combined words can be in turn spread. Propaganda, which interestingly enough conjures up images of WWII advertisements, plants an idea, just as reading a novel by Orwell can spark thoughts. These ideas have the potential to alter society.

4. WORDS ARE BEAUTIFUL

When correctly assembled, words are a thing of beauty that carries different meanings for every person, reading through a poem by Keats is a testimony of this. Beyond instilling ideas, words instil emotion.

What I’m left with is the impression that if wars are to be ended and peace attained, words are to be the weapon of choice. Not only are they the most powerful, but they are something that many of us have in our own possession. However, within words lies a destructive nature, by which a choice of words can mean the difference between someone feeling attacked and feeling a desire to rethink their ethos. If you are trying to create a change of attitudes, it is important to observe personal word choice lest you become ignorant yourself. It’s not until one lives in a country where free speech is not the norm does one properly understand their importance.

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