At the Official Report, we tend to focus on clarity and accuracy in communication, and we respect the ability of language both to reflect and create the world in which we live. It’s the pond in which we swim, if you like. Members’ business on Wednesday, which was introduced by Professor Adam Tomkins, focused on this year’s Holocaust memorial day, on 27 January, the theme of which is “The Power of Words”.
Professor Tomkins introduced the debate with a moving speech in which he reflected on the responsibility that comes with free speech and an acknowledgement that MSPs, too, are creatures of language: “Words can wound. They can damage relationships, destroy reputations and darken any conversation, but words can also enlighten, inform, educate and inspire. That is just as well, because here in this chamber words are all we have. Words are our tools. We use them to make law, to question ministers, to engage in debate. The very word “parliament” comes from the old French “parler”—to speak.”
Kenneth Gibson used the debate to tell the story of Alfred Wiener, who established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam, which became the Wiener library in London, a vast repository of information about and against Nazism and anti-Semitism that provides a valuable resource for scholars, researchers, the media and the public.
Johann Lamont called for positivity as well as vigilance in parliamentary debates, urging that, “in marking the occasion today, we should recognise the power of words to heal as well as to divide.”
The theme of vigilance was also taken up by Patrick Harvie, who, in speaking about the widespread use of language to dehumanise people even today, warned, “The words that we use to remember the past matter, but if we want to prevent such things from happening again we need to talk about the words that we use to define the present and to shape the future.”
Finally, in responding to the debate for the Government, Dr Alasdair Allan reminded us of the need for those in power to lead through the language that they use, saying, “Whether they are delivered through a speech or a tweet, the words of our leaders are seen by millions as setting the context for everything that happens in our society.”
The closing words of this Editor’s Pick should perhaps be what Professor Tomkins referred to as the “beautiful words” that introduce the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which tell us that “the … dignity and … inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.