In the Age of Terror, Writers Have a Powerful Weapon

Posted 13 Jan 2015, by

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Is the pen really mightier than the sword? If we’re to take this literally, then it would seem not. Swords are blunt force, meant to silence. They have an immediate, often shocking affect.

The pen is more subtle. Through the written word or cartoons, it is used to inspire, revolutionize and most of all – confront how we see ourselves. However, this takes time; ideas and arguments are rarely overnight sensations.

In Paris last week, it appears the sword won. The cartoonists are dead, and Islamic fundamentalism became that bit more scary. But those cartoons the killers disagreed with now reach a much wider audience, and their messages are further strengthened by the awful fact that people died for them. I would rather say that the killers won a battle, but they are destined to lose the war.

The pen is a power that should not be underestimated. In times of conflict, it is our best defence. We can express how we feel now in under 140 characters; imagine what we can do with 1000? The Internet is overflowing with sentiment, with articles condemning both the perpetrators of this attack and polarizing views on the cartoons of the publication itself. Everyone is entitled to their opinion – they are exercising their use of a moderate weapon, one that resounds and makes the silence of those murdered less deafening.

I find it interesting that extremists inevitably use terror as their weapon of choice, rather than the pen. Terror is easy. Writing is hard, and writing well is really hard. The Paris terrorists didn’t put pen to paper to defend the honour of Mohammed because doing so would have forced them to think critically, and reason out why the honour of a seemingly mortal man born 1400 years ago is worth defending in the first place. The only way to convey ideas is through writing; and good writing has a neat way of exposing bad ones.

I don’t want to make this political or about religion (although I have plenty to say on both matters). For me, fellow humans (not just fellow artists) were killed in the course of their job, trying to quash restrictions and limits that people place on themselves in the name of their religion, country or beliefs. They were pointing out the ridicule that we leave ourselves open to when we obey laws that are ludicrous; in this case, Divine laws concocted by humans in another time that our world no longer needs. Most of all, those who died were showing that no matter what you believe, we are allowed make light of it or abuse it for art.

I truly respect the place that satire has in our world. The Oxford dictionary defines satire as “The use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” It is a form of art that happens to push boundaries. The world rarely moves forward without people doing just that. People shouldn’t be dying for satire.

However, the art form I engage with most is writing. I have a love for great works of art – be they in film, music, sculpture or theatre but I identify most with the pen as my weapon. With it, I have the power to communicate. We need to fulfill our senses, if we are lucky enough to have all of them. The more we read, the more we absorb from the outside world; the better we understand. We can look to Plato, Descartes, Marx and Darwin for much of what we base our world on now. Voices of reason tend to ring shrilly in a world gone mad.

Art is subjective. Art is sometimes meant to shock and sometimes made to awe but it should always keep pushing boundaries. I am a playwright and I often focus on war. I am fascinated by the human response in these situations. I write to make people lean forward in their seats, to stir people to ruminate; to wonder; to question themselves on what they would do in a given situation, because often you really don’t know until you’re there. I spent two hours (longer than the play itself) at a party over Christmas discussing a character with a man I had just met, because he was so aggravated by my characters’ actions. I had to remind him, more than once, that these weren’t actual American soldiers in Afghanistan. It wasn’t that they didn’t ring true for him – it was that the truth in the character was upsetting. He was suggesting that the character was a certain way because of war and I simply said that perhaps that darkness was always in his heart and war simply released it. Similarly, perhaps these terrorists already had the anger in them, and they would release it wherever they chose. These pictures didn’t make them angry enough to kill: they were going to kill anyway.

The facts reflect well; less people have died for their art than have died at the hands of a foreign army. Books aren’t banned in most Western countries anymore. Paintings and installations, although sometimes objectionable, are accepted into museums and galleries. So, art is winning, and the pen is a formidable weapon when used correctly.

So what can we do? As writers, we must keep challenging, keep creating and keep provoking. It doesn’t particularly have to be about this attack, or terrorism. As a writer, use your pen well. Use your art to move the world forward. When something shocks or terrifies you, wonder at why. Writers, artists, and cartoonists – all will continue to challenge this crazy world with its conflicting rules and pockets of anarchy. The only way to mount a peaceful response is to write words, which people can look back on, to try and understand. Their bullets, their bombs will silence a few but they don’t erase the words; in fact, they draw attention to them.

Arthur Goldhammer said “In mourning this tragedy, let us not forget that Charlie Hebdo was shocking, obscene and offensive because the world is.” If we don’t like that, we have weapons to change it. Choose the pen, not the sword. The results will affect more people and last longer.

Caitriona McBride is an author, playwright and editor, based in Thailand. Her plays have been performed in Dublin, Dubai and New York.

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