Remember that old lie we used to tell each other as kids: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Of course, as we grew up, we began to understand what utter horse crap that saying is. Here is a dramatic example: go up to member of the Crip Gang and greet him or her as if they were a Blood Gang member. Yes, your words would create hurt and damage…or, if the timing were bad, cause your death. On a more every-day level, walk up to a sensitive young woman and make a disparaging comment about her weight or appearance, or walk up to a gay man and tell him he is somehow less than human and will burn in Hell. Words will never hurt me is a complete lie!
What does this have to do with librarianship? The short and easy answer is that words are our life–words written in html and light, words written in pigments suspended in water or oil and pressed onto fibrous sheets, or most any other medium. As Prince Hamlet says, “Words, words, words” (Hamlet act 2, scene 2). For better or for worse, we broker words and the abstractions they communicate. We refer to our field as information science, but it could also be called word science since even our perceptions of music, art, and important abstractions like love, hate, and liberty are so mediated by language–sociolinguistics, as well as cognitive and post-modern (Lacanian) psychology have such interesting things to say about this phenomenon.
I could not help but think about these ideas when I watched this little clip from John Stewart’s way-too-short interview with Salman Rushdie on the Daily Show. Here’s a man whose words mobilized assassination teams, whose words almost cost him his life. The occasion for the interview is the publication of a memoir on his years of hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran called for his death when he published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses (here is a little blurb on the book from Rushdie’s website). In the interview, he makes an interesting claim that there is a “straight line” between the storm over his book and the current unrest in the Islamic world over Sam Bacile’s inflammatory film Innocence of Muslims (and I have to ask myself whether it is really coincidence that the filmmaker’s name is so entwined with the word “imbecile”). That straight line is what Rushdie calls an “industry of outrage,” an industry that stems from and relies on words, words, words.
It is an important field we are going into, but one with its fair share of powder kegs.