Written tradition vs. spoken word

Words are not real. In his very interesting take on Canadian history, John Raulston Saul (my review here) proposes that the canadian style of governing is heavily inspired by the Amerindian oral tradition. He claims that Canada stands on three pillars – english, french and amerindian. To support his claim, he cites the Delgamuukw supreme court decision that allowed for the use of oral proof, not just written proof.

The trouble with the written word is that it can be used in so many ways – it can easily be taken out of context and even when it is found inside a larger document, sometimes amongst thousands of pages of context, it can still be taken to mean something entirely different from its original intent.

A fascinating case was the prosecution of a drug dealer in the United States. This drug dealer was engaging in an exchange of drugs for a gun. Under American law, if firearms are “used” in a drug deal, the punishment is far more severe than if no weapons are involved. In this fellow’s case he was sentenced to 30 years of jail because he “used” a firearm in his drug deal. The entire case, and appeals (all the way to the Supreme Court), rested on the meaning of the word “use”. In a 5-3 decision, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in jail. This was based on the fact that “use of a firearm” included any use that was material to the drug deal. Of course, the original intent of the law was to punish violent drug deals that used firearms as weapons, but that lack of precision did not withstand the prosecution’s ability to twist the word. The written word, is the written word. This case is well discussed in the Philosophy bites podcast, Stephen Neale on Meaning and Interpretation – Philosophy Bites.

In an oral based society, it is very difficult to take things out of context. History, laws, rules and other cultural institutions are constantly evolving as they pass from one generation to another. However, to pass from one generation to another and to be enforced in the present time, the rules must be agreed to by the parties involved. On the other hand, written text can very easily be manipulated by the next generation or by another party with different interests at heart.

Contrary to the this situation, the actors applying orally transmitted rules and history must agree on its meaning, they cannot simply repeat a written word – because it does not exist. That need for agreement as to the meaning of a rule or tradition forces compromise, understanding and flexibility to the situation at hand. This fundamental difference between the oral and written word lead to very different societies.

Not only does a written tradition allow for manipulation, it removes our responsibility for intelligence and wisdom by falsely claiming that we can write down all the rules needed. Consequently, we have millions of pages of laws on every imaginable subject, yet we far too often fail to apply the true intent of those laws. Despite our attempts to write all possible situations down, and close all loopholes, new circumstances will arise making our previous reflections inadequate. It is a futile attempt to outsource our responsibility for reason and compromise to a document. (see these excellent TED talks on the issue: Barry Swartz on our loss of wisdom,  Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system).

Canada, having endorsed the validity of the oral tradition in court cases has departed from the European tradition and created an entirely new way of dealing with history, tradition and laws. For that, we should be very grateful.

Published on August 1, 2010