On Images and Words
Written in the Winter of 2001
by Jim Richmond
In my English classes, we love words. We revel in the sound and taste of them. But we also often lament the necessary evils of language. Words are the scaffolding of thought. They are our most precise tool in shaping understanding. We cannot think for long without words. We fall back to them instinctively. They carve lines in our abstractions. The power of language is therefore awesome and terrible.
Likewise, the strength of a picture is worthy of respect. Our eyes, like gaping mouths, take in everything they can, gluttonous for light. A painting in a church shapes our sense of a man, turning him into the artist’s rendition. He has become so pale.
These images and words, when combined together, can become maps that visually define our politics. Swatches of color become flags, rallying points for both the patriotic and the fearful. Lines define minds, even if the lines can’t be seen from space.
Our images and words offer safety in times of crisis. And so, many of us have replaced the destroyed towers of the world trade center with two new symbolic buildings. The media reflects our oversimplification of the current situation by using their own towers of “Word” and “Picture” to show what sells. Division by race, class, and religion. Anger. Our language and our news images drift to the macabre, the extreme, and the absolute. Labels like “Muslim”, “American,” and “Terrorist” are scrolled alongside videos of flags burning, rocks flying, and angry cries.
It is sad that we allow these words and images to dominate our discussion of the tragedy in New York. Of course not all Muslims are terrorists. That’s ludicrous. Of course not all Americans are war-mongers. We are millions and millions of minds and words and hearts. And yet these generalizations have become so easy. These generalizations have become new towers to lean on in time of trouble. They are the new iconography. We must not let this happen.
A photo of the earth from space is a very revealing thing. From there we see big blue marble, mostly liquid, spinning softly beneath white clouds. We don’t see the borders of a map. There is no line painted on the earth between Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews. There is no label that says, “America” or “Afghanistan.” Just a big blue marble.
Language and image are powerful, but they don’t have to define us or our relationships. When madness dominates the world stage, let us not lean too heavily on the words and images of the media. We are critical listeners and critical viewers, with the ability to think independently. May our hearts and minds never become a home for simplistic generalization, racist categorization, or mindless reaction. May we each build for ourselves more meaningful towers in time of crisis. May we each call out in our own voice, that a lasting strength might be seen in our weaknesses.