The name of the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton might not be familiar to many people, but they may know his famous quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
My objective is not to convince the reader that words win over swords, but to illustrate the ability communication has to influence masses and win conflicts.
Some critics may scoff at the idea that words have power. After all, modern weaponry has the capability to wipe out entire cities and decimate large armies. If every nuclear-armed country were to unleash their arsenal all at once, the destruction which follows would be apocalyptic.
So how can communication, whether written or spoken, possibly have power?
It was not the armed conflicts of the American Revolution that gave birth to the U.S. as a nation, but the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Neither was it the atomic bombs dropped over Japan that ended World War II, but the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. Thirdly, it was not the American Civil War that ended institutionalized slavery in the U.S., but the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
Communication has made great strides with innovations in technology. In the 21st Century, information travels much faster than any physical object and has a broader range of impact than ever before.
It takes approximately 30 minutes for a missile to fly from its origin to the other side of the world, while a digital message can reach a multitude of destinations in only a few seconds. By the time a missile has reached its target, a message could have already reached billions of recipients around the planet.
Communication can also mobilize large numbers of people and influence them toward a certain action, whether the author intended it or not.
A famous example of communication influencing the masses is when Martin Luther, a religious figure in the 16th century, posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was astounded by what he perceived as the corruption of church leaders in his time and called for change. He produced numerous writings detailing his beliefs and the authorities tried to make him recant them. When Luther refused, he was declared an outlaw.
Despite being a wanted man, many people rallied to Luther’s cause. More than 800 million people follow his ideals to this day.
If words have no power, then why do people come out in droves and protest angrily because of what a certain public figure says? Why do people gather in full force and resort to drastic actions because of something they have read, seen, or heard on the internet, the radio, television, or by word of mouth? Why do people still follow the teachings of people who have been dead for decades, centuries, or even millennia?
There is another mass communicator which I have become very familiar with over the past few years: Jose Rizal, who is one of the national heroes of the Philippines.
As a child, I heard my relatives talk about him often. When I asked them who he was and what he did, they told me he was a revolutionary figure who fought against the colonizers in the 19th Century. When the colonizers killed him, the revolution strengthened even more.
At first I thought to myself, “This man must have been a general and led an army!”
As I did more research, I found out that he was nothing of the sort. Instead, he was a writer. I was very surprised and wondered how someone can fight a revolution without weapons. It was then I decided to research his life and read his work.
Like Luther, Rizal wrote his convictions and published them. He wrote satirical novels illustrating the abuses of the colonizers against his people. His works created controversy, and soon the authorities started hunting him. Rizal was eventually captured and executed in 1896, but not before his writings spread throughout the Philippines and Europe. His execution fueled the revolution and the Philippines eventually declared independence in 1898.
I stood before Rizal’s statue, of all places, in Heidelberg, Germany. The man has memorials and statues dedicated to him not just in the Philippines, but also Europe and the U.S.
I said to myself, “This was a man who fought a revolution not with weapons, but with ink and pen.”
It was then that I realized the power of communication.