Word Are Deeds: Rebecca Solnit the Power of Speech to Shape the Future


There is a curious and curiously popular habit whereby people edit down the subjective truth in the statement “I am afraid we will lose” to the pseudo-objective declaration “We will lose.” My best interpretation of this, after seeing it time after time, in crisis after crisis, is that it’s how people hide from their own vulnerable emotions. It’s an interesting journey from real fear to false authority and projection of confidence. But why would you assert as fact and inevitability what you fear? What are you protecting? Maybe the self rather than the cause, but only protecting it from disappointment, uncertainty, risk.

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When you assert that the future is already decided, you undermine the motivation to participate in shaping that future—which seems ridiculously obvious as I type these words, but doesn’t seem like it’s considered by these prophets of doom. Also when you turn your feelings into facts, you turn truth into fiction. Accepting defeat in advance is a curious form of self-protection. I want to see people protect the cause by distinguishing between these two things and maybe realizing that you protect the self by protecting the cause and the possibilities.

This is not an argument against fear. It’s an argument for clarity about what’s a feeling and what’s a fact and a contemplation of how our words shape our world. I’ve been saying for the last few years, in regard to climate, “I respect despair as an emotion but don’t confuse it with an analysis.” You can feel fear, despair, sorrow, anxiety without surrender; history is full of countless people who persevered under the grimmest circumstances, often with heavy hearts and no victory visible on the horizon, or success a wild unlikelihood. Sometimes they lost, but the only ones who won were the ones who stuck with it (or who benefited from someone else doing the work).

Here I’m arguing for what my friend Roshi Joan Halifax calls wise hope, not foolish optimism; there are times when an honest assessment of “this will not work” is the beginning of turning toward what possibly will. On the other hand, in my years on this earth, I’ve seen things declared impossible or unimaginable come to pass, notably the fall of the Soviet satellite states in 1989—I don’t think that even most of the people who toppled those regimes believed they could and would, until they did.

We make something more likely, more widely believed, by saying and repeating it. Our rhetoric encourages or discourages. Which is why sports teams chant a version of “I believe we will win.” A whole sector of the progressive/left/whatever, however, seems to be eternally chanting “I believe we will lose.” This is not something sports teams do, incidentally.

“The very act of trying to look ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.”

In life outside games, warnings matter, but warnings are not prophecies. Warnings say, “this could happen, or if this happens, the results will be that,” which is quite different from “this will happen” as a flat declaration of inevitability. From Orwell to Octavia Butler, the people who give us warnings believe we have choices to make; as Butler said: “The very act of trying to look ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.”

I don’t love Winston Churchill’s politics, but I do like some of his rhetoric, namely his famous declaration of defiance: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall never surrender.” He said that on June 4, 1940, when he had just become Britain’s prime minister. The war was going terribly: Belgium had surrendered and the Nazis, having crushed France, were about to take Paris. Britain faced continental fascism largely alone and Churchill feared that Germany would invade the UK. He didn’t say that the Allies would win, but that they would not cease to try. And he saw his job as to feed their stubborn ferocity, not their fear.

In the wake of the 2016 election, historian Timothy Snyder issued his Twenty Rules for Surviving Tyranny. The first is “1. Do not obey in advance.” I would add to that “do not surrender in advance.” I shared that in the wake of the abysmal debate last week, adding: Do not surrender prematurely. Do not surrender maturely, for that matter. Do not surrender if there is any other option, and maybe don’t surrender then, either.

Snyder continues,

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. … Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

I have said,

Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.

It was striking in the face of that terrible debate to see people decide we had already lost an election that will not begin until early voting this fall. You would never see this kind of public defeatism and infighting from the Republicans, not that their boundless loyalty to a deranged criminal is exactly admirable. But it is effective. On the other hand, saying we’ve lost or will inevitably lose the election helps lose it.

What has most moved me in public life over the past thirty or forty years is people facing terrible odds without surrendering.

Yesterday, facing the nightmare of the far-right party’s success in the French election, left-wing politician Jean Luc Melenchon declared in a nighttime rally in Paris, “French people, the future of our common homeland will depend on your choice, whatever our skin color, our religion, our gender. Nothing is decided. Courage, young people! Hold fast! The future is what we make of it!” He spoke in Place de la Republique, where the rights of man and the revolutionary values of liberté, egalité, fraternité are celebrated, reaffirming those commitments.

“With high hope for the future no prediction in regard to it is ventured,” said Lincoln in his second inaugural address, in the midst of that war over the future of slavery in the United States (which is itself a reminder that the people who decided to abolish that institution were at first a marginalized, mocked, and sometimes terrorized minority and abolition was widely regarded as impossible).

What has most moved me in public life over the past thirty or forty years is people facing terrible odds without surrendering. I’m old enough to remember the anti-apartheid movement when Nelson Mandela was still serving a life sentence, and the collapse of the Soviet satellite states thanks to nonviolent organizing and civil society engagement; I’ve seen it in more contemporary faces of resistance from Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Chiapas’s Zapatistas to the Indigenous-led anti-pipeline activism at Standing Rock and western Canadian sites; I’ve seen it in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, in the Chilean student movement a few years ago, in the South Pacific Climate Warriors, and in the Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020.

We are in a crisis like nothing before in this country—only the rise of the Confederacy, secession, and the Civil War are equal in import, but they are not equal in corruption at the heart of things—in Congress and in the Supreme Court, which has staged a judicial coup in its last few days of outrageous rulings.

If Trump resumes office, the third branch falls and they combine into an unholy cabal for at least an attempt at endless tyranny. We may not win, but it behooves us to do everything we can to do so, and that includes our words and their impact. This does not mean suppressing fear and dissent, but being clear about the difference between emotion and analysis and about the fact that our words shape our worlds. 

It also means recognizing the arenas in which opinion and thereby consequences are being shaped. A bunch of pundits who presumably want the Democrats to win the 2024 presidential election have taken to calling for Biden to step down, apparently oblivious or indifferent to how that weakens his candidacy, while not demonstrating a convincing alternative path to the White House. They too seem to have taken their fears for analyses.  

They are joined in this undermining of the candidate by the New York Times, which famously dragged (“but her emails”) the Democratic candidate in 2016 while saying little about the Republican candidate’s appalling record of racism, bankruptcy, corruption, and criminal associates. The paper has published mountains of articles and editorials on Biden’s age since February and a few days ago issued an editorial insisting he must step down. (Strikingly, only the Philadelphia Inquirer saw Trump’s criminality and threats of tyranny as grounds to declare he should step down.) 

As a study of the newspaper issued this spring put it,

The Times is engaged in a game of circular narrative construction: first, cover an issue excessively relative to other equally or more important issues; second, conduct opinion polls and follow up reporting that offer respondents the opportunity to express concern about the excessively covered issue; third, cover the results of stage two as if they are newsworthy events that happened independently of any prior media coverage.

Words have impacts. We shape our worlds with them, and that’s a power that though  not evenly distributed lies with nearly all of us one way or another. The poet Marie Howe famously recounted of the Soviet refugee she studied with, “One of my teachers at Columbia was Joseph Brodsky… and he said ‘look,’ he said, ‘you Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.”

But there is another kind of language that opens the door and lets that evil into the house—including by saying it’s inevitable—and that issues from our mouths, not theirs.



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