In 2008, six people presented before Maidstone Crown Court in Kent, in the UK, charged with property damage for painting the word ‘GORDON’ on the side of a smoke stack at the Kingsnorth Power Station.
On the face of it, of course, you’d think that’s a cut and dry case of vandalism – were it true that their actions spoke louder than their words.
But words change things. They change the way we read actions. The stories we tell inform our understanding of the material world around us.
The Kingsnorth Six, it transpires, were climate change activists. They argued that by occupying the smoke stack – and shutting down the station – they were helping to prevent climate change and averting global property damage.
They were acquitted.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie said that “How stories are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told are really dependent on power”
Had the actions of the Kingsnorth Six not been tempered with words, with their story, there would be no legal precedent for this kind of activism, no inspiration for other activists, and no exciting story for me to begin the case for the negative: that actions do not speak louder than words.
You will hear from my negative team about the way words – and stories – can powerfully change our world, and even save a life. You will hear the way words shape the world we live in, and contextualise our actions.
But of course, those opposite have begun their case as a case study in the failure of actions in the face of words!
Mitch Garling’s decision to open his mouth – to argue using words and not interpretive dance – is a contradiction, a category error, an epistemic failure, like a porpoise insisting that the best way to get around the ocean is by walking.
OH THE BLISSFUL OPTIMISM! Would that we, the defenders of the spoken word, might stand up here like stunned mullets and let an argument so fatally flawed slip through our grasp like a slimy, rhetorical eel.
No, how could actions speak louder than words – they do not speak at all! They do not yell, they do not sing, they do not joke, they do not argue.
Says Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy: “I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision, when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry”
What action can speak louder than the soul-rumbling roar of poetry, or the razor incision of the philosopher’s pen? How many generations have lived and died in the sonic wash of Shakespeare’s river, of Plato’s tide, of Marx’s torrent?
Words change our world.
They change how we view the actions that go on in the vast and empty cosmos of the real.
I want, given that I have now escalated the scale of this debate to the complexity of the universe, to conclude with three simple words spoken by one inspiring man.
A man who gives me hope for the future of our nation, a man who continues to speak truth to power – an expression itself borne of the loudness of the spoken word.
Three simple words that have put his compassionate actions into powerful context,
three simple words that have inspired other words and actions in our community and beyond,
three simple words that have cut across the coarse grain of our present social divides.
Bless the Burqa.
That man is Father Rod Bower, and he is sitting right over there, and I rest my case.
[This speech was given at the first Your Debate event at the University of Newcastle, Ourimbah Campus on 5 August, 2015]