2017 Most Philosophical Student in America

Hannah McKenzie, Maryland.

                         Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

As Plato writes, “no law or ordinance is mightier than understanding.” It is only through creative, honest expression that we can grow to understand the stories-- the hardships, the hopes, and the needs-- of those with experiences different from our own. At this time in American society, when political viewpoints appear to divide us rather than unite us, it is imperative that we listen to each other. We must seek out these stories, these expressions flowing from the power of the pen, so that we do not embrace the violence of the sword. Stories are what unite us and create mutual understandings that heal wounds and prevent wars.

My mother once told me a story from her time in the Foreign Service; it stands out to me as the most truthful illustration of the great power of verbal expression in making positive change.

Muhammed Suharto came to power in Indonesia on March 12, 1967 during a military coup; this marked the beginning of a 31-year dictatorship. Suharto imposed laws banning political activity on college campuses. When working with student protesters, my mother heard stories of fellow activists who disappeared or were killed by the military under the Suharto regime. The voices of the Indonesian citizens were silenced by the wrath of the sword.

But with expression, the students took back what was theirs. After suffering for nearly 20 years under the Suharto regime, the National Forum for Indonesian youth helped spark a revolution with written statements calling for “reformasi dami” (peaceful reform), which got bolder and bolder. They called for an end to violence, kleptocracy, and unfairness. They called for democracy, and, finally, for Suharto to step down from power. Their writing was dangerous-- it inspired demonstrations on campuses in all of Indonesia’s major cities.

“Korupsi kolusi nepotisme,” read signs with lines drawn through them (no more corruption, collusion or nepotism); the students held the signs high. On May 16, 1998, tens of thousands of university students crowded the inside of the Parliament compound, wearing their university blazers-- yellow crowds for Universitas Indonesia and navy blue crowds for Universitas Trisakti. Thousands more students appeared each day, they camped, and they didn’t leave. They chanted, “Suharto, turun” (Suharto, step down). And on the fourth day, he did.

While the sword used for decades by the Suharto regime was certainly powerful, it proved weaker than the pen. The student activists recognized the great injustice of having their freedom of expression stolen, and their use of words sparked the peaceful revolution that finally brought them justice. Suharto’s resignation began a long and messy process of Indonesia’s becoming a democracy.

Einstein once said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” The sword has the power to cut people down, but the pen is the mightiest catalyst for greater understanding and positive change. Ultimately, it is the expression of people that gives us a chance at a world where people listen, understand, and react without force to create peace


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