What our words are worth

One hardship with being human is the fragile nature of what goes on in our brain. In striving to relieve this we have invented technologies which record our emotions and ideas. The earliest cave paintings discovered date back over 30,000 years when humans made surprisingly detailed drawings of animals. Humans have a deep need to preserve what we find good, or beautiful, or otherwise important, and we have persistently developed more and more tools to somehow capture and communicate these thoughts.

Early systems of printing started with hand-printed shapes and then developed into printing machines. Cuneiform is an ancient writing system first used around 3400 BC in the Ancient Near East. In 868 A.D. Buddhist monks in China created the oldest known printed book, the Diamond Sutra. Interestingly, the authors included the message, “for universal free distribution” at the end. The monks who wrote it wanted their ideas about how to live a good life to be shared rather than restricted. Wooden moveable type used in the late 13th century in China created the world’s first mass produced book. Johannes Gutenberg invented a working printing press around 1450 and in 1452 printed about 250 copies of the Gutenberg Bible. You may already know that the Bible is the most widely-printed book in history with over 5 billion copies printed.

The spread of the printing press throughout the world encouraged the spread of ideas which served to move cultures forward as old ideas gave way to new religious interpretations, breakthrough scientific theories, and cultural happenings. In 1605, the first official newspaper, Relation, was printed and distributed in Germany. Newspapers were printed throughout Europe leading to literacy growth, education, and the availability of common printed ideas for more and more people. Imagine how much faster ideas could spread and shape the world back then! A single edition of a newspaper or book containing the exact same printed content could reach hundreds, or even thousands of people in a matter of days or weeks. This power to influence was so recognized that “...freedom of speech, or of the press…” is one of the basic rights the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects.

Experiences involving newspapers have been part of my entire life. As a kid, I remember our “paper boy” delivered The Daily Pantagraph each afternoon to our front porch step. Often I'd sit and wait so I could enjoy that feeling of getting a “fresh” paper to read, although the comics section was my favorite. I knew even then, that the entertaining part of the paper was found in a totally separate section of the paper. The important news was on the front page, and the less important entertainment was to be found in back. And learning to read the comic text and images – with their subtle or obvious humor, or innuendo, or sarcasm – was an important part of my education.

When I was older I delivered newspapers when either substituting for the delivery kid who had gone on vacation, or when my younger brother needed help with his route. I'd easily walk a few miles each day, so the job provided me with early lessons in healthy exercise. Folding newspapers just right taught me attention to detail, as well as how the thick Sunday papers were nearly impossible to fold. Learning where each customer wanted their paper delivered taught me basic lessons for customer satisfaction. And accounting for each delivered paper made arithmetic necessary and sensible – there was nothing worse than finding out I was either short or had too many papers when I had finished the route. My Grandpa clipped and mailed me color comics from the Sunday Tribune. He called them "the funnies,” and I loved receiving color versions of comics that our local newspaper didn’t carry. So many ideas for my young mind! As a father and adult, printed news continued to be a part of life. My children worked delivering both the Rochelle News-Leader and the weekly shopper. My mother still regularly clips news articles to post on her bulletin board, and she regularly sends out clippings to me, our family, and friends.

But printed word and electronic media are more than just history or activities which provide life lessons. They continue as a powerful force impacting our daily life and culture. Nowadays, printed and electronic media bring us news stories from around our nation and the world, provide accountability by permanently documenting activity – whether good or bad or even criminal – of public officials, private companies and individuals bringing well-deserved attention or embarrassing exposure to those involved. Famous and infamous political leaders, movie stars, sports heroes and other “influencers” can blast their thoughts whenever they like. Goods and services advertisement enjoy a wide, public marketplace. All of this can happen in a fraction of the time required in the past, and can reach thousands, millions, even billions of people in seconds.

Because of this speed, printed and electronic words continue to carry a responsibility that goes along with the freedoms and power they offer. Online news, as well as social media, all enjoy the power of the printed word. I believe that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and that a fundamental responsibility of our freedom of speech is for us to use words, rather than violence, to express our human emotions and ideas. And our words need to regulate the swords, so that swords do not become mightier than our words. One of my mother’s quotable words of wisdom for me as a child was (and I bet you’ve heard it too) is, “sticks and stones can break your bones but words may never hurt you”. I hope that we all continue to value the freedom power of our words, as well as the responsibility that is needed express opinion thoughtfully and with reason.

Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology, including production, transportation, energy, and communication for over 30 years. He enjoys a wide variety of hobbies including figuring out how to be a better citizen and now trying to learn journalism. He can be reached by email at [email protected]


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