Interesting Times: Pens vs. Swords

I am hardwired to avoid conflict. I took a fencing class in college, and while I was pretty good at blocking and defending, every match ended with me slowly edged out of bounds because I couldn’t bring myself to move forward and attack.

I can’t think of anything more distressing than getting caught in a fight. I go out of my way to keep people getting along. I am tact, and diplomacy, and biting my tongue. I haven’t raised my voice in anger since I was 10 (just because you don’t like it, STEVE, doesn’t mean it’s bad music PERCEPTION AND TASTE ARE SUBJECTIVE, STEVE).

So you could say that I see a bit of myself in the Red Army. They want systemic change in a tyrannical society, but they also can’t break away from being polite and respectful. Each protest sign and rallying cry ends with a “please.”

I want so badly to live in a world where that would work, where earnest belief in a better future and a reasonable and respectful appeal to the best of human nature would make the sun rise on a changed society.

Disconcertingly, it is Rincewind who dashes these hopes for the Red Army. Rincewind–cowardly, sprint-away-in-a-cloud-of-his-own-dust Rincewind–plainly states that revolution requires conflict. If you want something to change, you need to fight for it.

Even more disconcertingly, he is talking about physical violence. People on both sides are going to be killed, but that, he says, is what it will take. And if we take a look at our own world’s history, you’ll see that the word “revolution” is coupled with the word “bloody” more often than not. So often, in fact, that you begin to wonder if there is any other kind.

That is not true, of course. There are all sorts of revolutions, big anInteresting Times 4d small, and not all of them involve the streets running red. Just this past year, in the US we saw the culmination of a major shift in thinking when marriage equality was instituted nationwide.

However, it does take significantly longer to change someone’s mind by talking to them instead of stabbing them. It took over forty years from the first US Supreme Court ruling that denied same-sex marriages to this past June, when it extended the freedom to marry to the entire nation.

And Rincewind is right–if you want to change something, you need to fight for it. Those forty years have been a long, slow, constant, uphill fight.

So is it better to have a (relatively) quick revolution, where people die for what they believe in, or a slow revolution, where people die of old age waiting for change?

We’ll talk about this in the podcast for Interesting Times, but this book asks readers to question the relationship between barbarism and civilization. The barbarians are held up as the opposite of the civilized Agatean court, and, as readers, we are meant to root for the barbarians. Cohen’s usual methods can be confidently described as “bloody,” and he ultimately wins the throne of the Agatean Empire through battle.

I wish he didn’t.

Rincewind points out the issue of political revolution–one government is replaced with another, and the “common people” are in the same place where they have always been.

While the Discworld series explores long-term developments in the world, novels within the series tend to focus on the short-term–events that take place over a number of months, or weeks, or days.Given enough time, though, could the Red Army have started a cultural revolution instead?

What if, instead of summoning a Great Wizard to lead them, the Red Army had focused on dissemination? Get as many copies of Twoflower’s books as they can, spread them to the corners of the Empire, and let them germinate.

Cohen will be gone in a few months, off to conquer the next unconquerable. And I would put my money on the next Agatean Emperor putting everything back to how it was before he came.

The systems that surround us, that our civilizations are built upon, were not erected over night. One battle will not change millenia of a certain way of thinking. If you want meaningful change, it has to last.

In my heart, from the depths of my ventricles to the bend in my aorta, I am a rhetorician. I believe in the power of language to persuade–to persuade more effectively than the point of a sword or the end of a gun. Rhetoric is the crown jewel of civilization–the ability to disagree and still move forward.

If you want change, you need to fight for it; honestly, I would rather fight with my words than with a fencing foil.   


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