At seventeen, I was faced with a choice: words, or pictures. The Art Teacher lobbied for Art, advising me to apply for Foundation courses at Art School. The English Teacher lobbied for English Literature, advising me to take a degree; advising me, memorably, that Art “wouldn’t be enough,” for me.
Pictures, on the whole, were deemed the bigger risk. What would I do with an Art degree? There was a bigger market for words. The world always wanted words. They were the better option. The safer option.
And, sure enough, soon enough, my paint brushes stood unwashed, crusted in dulled colours; my oil paints stiffened, cracking and curling up into themselves; I’d chosen words – and, from then on, all my endeavours would rely on my ability to choose the right ones.
They still do.
If I were seventeen again and faced with the same decision today, I’m not sure words would still seem like the safe option.
2016 was the year we saw just how weaponised words can be.
We’ve always known this, of course. From the first time someone slings a slur at us in the playground (or across the dinner table), we learn how much words can sting. We also learn, pretty early on, that our words can have both desired and unintended power.
And, either way, can get us into a lot of trouble.
Having (usually) learned this before being able to put our words down on paper, or onto a screen, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that the printed word can have an even greater impact upon us than a spoken one – after all, when you put something into print, the necessary delay between brain and fingertips, slower than between brain and tongue (further to go, I guess), offers greater opportunity for more careful selection.
If you’ve put it down on ‘paper’ you must really mean what you say.
At least, perhaps that’s what some of us used to think. Now we’re Post-Truth. What you say and what you really mean doesn’t matter anymore, right?
Brexit means Brexit.
I’m busy adulting.
We’re gonna do it bigly.
For some, the selection of the wrong words creates a barrel-bomb set to devastate their lives, professionally, personally, or both. Others can drop H-bomb after H-bomb and emerge, if not unscathed, victorious nevertheless.
If that weren’t confusing enough, the words themselves keep changing their camouflage so that, just as we think we know their shape, they’ve turned into something unrecognisable. Once shiny words quickly corrode in the hash-tagged brine of social media.
Far from indefatigable, we can wear them out in a day.
Diversity is degraded. Decency derided. Even snowflake has become a dirty word.
It was thinking about snowflakes that got me pondering on my seventeen-year-old self and the choices I made.
Just before she went off to university last year, I took my goddaughter out to dinner (a god-fatherly thing, I supposed, to do, despite this never being an official arrangement – I have no church). Over dinner, she said something that struck me as a profound truth of our time:
“I think the difference between your generation and mine is that everyone lied to your generation, but you didn’t know it, but everyone lies to my generation and we do know it.”
And it’s not just the lies, the Post-Truth, the inflammatory words we use. Think of the horror (“The horror! The horror!”). There in so many hands, for all the world to see; enough to darken, to sadden, any heart. The real world, relayed in real time; Hieronymus Bosch, reimagined (how my English teacher thought Art wouldn’t be stretching enough for me I’ll never know – terrible bias, isn’t it?).
Snowflake, as a pejorative term, has to be the word that’s maddened me the most in 2016 (even more, staggeringly, than bigly).
I may not be of the appropriate age group, but I do feel offended at the notion that young people today are ‘Generation Snowflake’ and inherently more prone to taking offence and less resilient. They have more to be offended by, for starters. There is more to hear, to see. And, the more you know, the more there is to worry about too; the more there is to fear.
We stole a great deal of many of their childhoods by introducing them to technologies we couldn’t control (not just throwing open Pandora’s Box, but scraping out its darkest corners).
We may have stolen their futures by burning through all the money and rubbishing the planet.
Finding all that a little offensive seems a perfectly logical response to me. If we were better at adulting maybe we’d see that.
They will be resilient, I have no doubt. Human beings are. But if they want to tell the sensationalists and hate-mongers (and those that would tell them it’s all their fault and they’re being ‘entitled’ to expect the things many of us were able to take for granted) to shut up, and that they don’t want to hear it, who on Earth could blame them?
As much as I’ve always relied on them, I also know sometimes words just aren’t good enough.