Now is a Great Time to Hear ‘Words that changed the world’

“Language is the dress of thought.” ~ Samuel Johnson

I love language.  I love the way anyone can employ almost infinite combinations of words and phrases to express themselves. There is a skill in the way words are arranged; their symmetry, their poetry, their layering, their meaning.

Language is sometimes woefully inadequate to express the human condition, (hence the saying, lost for words), but it’s the best, most accurate method we have to communicate with.

I’m not including music, which is in a realm of its own to stimulate imagination and emotions, a shared universal language that transcends language barriers. Music is more ephemeral, subjective and enjoyable, but it cannot give specific instructions, it can only elicit certain moods. It is a gateway to feelings, inspiration and words.

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

Having said that, I’ve always been drawn to speeches; sometimes making them, but mostly listening to or reading them. I even included a speech (in dramatic context of course), in my novel.

As a formal way of putting across ideas either to small groups of people or to large numbers of the population, speeches can be used effectively by charismatic politicians (not necessarily of good character), in nuggets of beguiling rhetoric to garner votes.

At their most effective speeches record history, provide inspiration, communicate important ideas and concepts, and of course, tell stories that need to be told.

Emmeline Pankhurst delivering a speech

Delivering an impactful speech in the modern era is probably harder than in centuries before. People stream their entertainment and news from many different sources and have limited time and probably shorter attention spans. Most of us lead busy lives and have to filter a multitude of outlets vying for our attention.

The TED Talks are a wonderful way for thought leaders to reach people who are looking for ideas, knowledge and inspiration. Being in a position of power gives certain individuals a platform, but once it has been consistently abused those words will eventually fall on deaf or resentful ears.

In the recent chaos of house renovations, back to school and starting secondary school preparations, plus the upheaval of my 18 year old son’s move to Germany, I have been burning the candle at both ends.

One night I was feeling particularly exhausted and burnt out, and experiencing unexpected empty nest syndrome. My eldest son has already been in New Zealand for over a year, I thought I might handle it better. Despite being fortunate enough to have my two wonderful daughters at home, I still feel Will’s absence immensely.

On this night when I was at a low ebb, I started watching a 2018 episode of Intelligence Squared on YouTube, and soon became totally engrossed. The speeches, made at pivotal moments in history, still seem so relevant to what is happening around the world right now; as humanity faces a global pandemic, the insidious dismantling of democracy by right-wing populist governments and the environmental behemoth of climate change.

I think that’s enough to be getting on with!

“Speeches are great when they reflect great decisions.” ~ Ted Sorensen (speechwriter to JFK)

Words That Changed the World is expertly hosted by journalist and political broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who is flanked by two respected, experienced speechwriters, journalists and political advisers: Philip Collins and Cody Keenan – discussing the historical context and fascinating insight on their chosen speeches. This is not to be missed. The acting talent who give life to the oratory is equally brilliant.

The chosen speeches in the order they are presented and discussed:

  • The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
  • 50th Anniversary of Selma Speech by Barack Obama (2015)
  • Their Finest Hour – Winston Churchill (1940)
  • Elizabeth I – Tilbury speech addressing the troops (1588)
  • Emmeline Pankhurst – ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  • William Shakespeare – From Henry V Saint Crispin’s Day speech (1599)
  • Colonel Tim Collins – on eve of the Battle of Iraq (2003)
  • JFK’s Why go to the moon? speech (1962)
  • MLK’s I have a dream (1963)
  • The Perils of Indifference by Elie Wiesel (1999)

It felt good to remind myself of the strength of the human spirit listening to ‘words that changed the world’.

These speeches contain both substance and style – they resonate and connect with people on an emotional level – proof on me in the form of hair-raising goose bumps! That’s what we need now, leadership as a force for shared empowerment and good.

JFK’s full ‘why go to the moon?’ speech at Rice University on 12th September 1962 :

As Philip Collins so eloquently explains, rhetoric originates with the Greeks, and cites how Pericles in 431 BC gave his eulogy to the war dead before going on to praise democracy – a move mirrored by Abraham Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg Address.

Cicero believed that rhetoric and democracy could not be separated. Collins highlights: “It’s only in a democracy that words really matter, because it’s only in a democracy where you’re trying to persuade. The act of persuasion is the act of politics…”.

An audience is always at risk of being hoodwinked by empty rhetoric. If only we could peer into the speaker’s heart and see their inner core, their truth.  A truly great speech doesn’t pass from lip to ear – but from heart to heart.

Even one of our most revered statesmen, Winston Churchill, who wrote some of the most enduring, best loved speeches in our history didn’t always get it right. Collins shares that early in his career, Churchill had a tendency to lavish verbosity and grandeur where it simply wasn’t warranted.  Churchill certainly embodied the phrase, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Words that changed the world:

There is a danger that politicians will woo audiences with rhetoric that speaks to fear and prejudice, that appeals to our base motives, disguised as serving the national interest, but in reality does anything but.

The power of words, as is mentioned in this superb video, can work both ways. Freedom of speech is a razor sharp double edged sword.

“Speech is power: Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sadly, the broad, sunlit uplands that Churchill espoused in Their Finest Hour speech are currently shrouded beneath bloated grey clouds. Shadows and harbingers of our own collective making. We need to shine a light, a ray of hope, before we are enveloped in total darkness.  Our finest hour seems a long way in the past, as we hurtle full steam ahead into what looks like will be our most desperate post war hour, come Brexit.

Who in their right mind would vote for such a horror? Only if it is portrayed as a benefit and a blessing, as was emblazoned across a certain red bus. But there comes a time when people perceive seductive slogans and disingenuous rhetoric for what they are: harmful and dangerous. Perverted ideological fantasies are being increasingly laid bare; exposed in the light of truth and reality.

The power of hindsight enables us to see through tempting rhetoric to the destructive political attributes beneath the surface: criminal incompetence, bare-faced corruption, jingoism, greed, cronyism, nepotism, hubris, deceit, censorship and breath-taking hypocrisy.

There should be no doubt that Brexit will be a nightmare for our nation, for the majority of its citizens. Just as Hitler’s rise to power proved devastating for Europe and indeed the wider world. His passionate oratory belied his inner psychopath, but perhaps the signs were already there for those who looked closely.

I fear that we are headed towards tyranny – the worst kind of tyranny because it was freely selected by a majority under the influence of rhetoric, aided by media complicity. We all need to pay attention to what is happening in the halls of power.  British sovereignty is not being reclaimed, it’s being overtly purloined by a group of elected gangsters! The ugly content of their characters is on show for all to see.

Cody Keenan rightly says that speeches hold up a mirror to society.

“All the most powerful speeches ever made point to a better future.” ~ Patrick Dixon

Decency and honesty is such an important part of public life, alongside vulnerability. Being a servant-leader is a fundamental quality and should be a prerequisite for politicians.

When you look back at the best loved, most iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Emily Pankhurst and other luminaries who changed the world through their deeds and words; they had that skill to act selflessly and lift people up,  not just to say, but to do the right thing.

Listening to these speeches gave me a glimmer of hope that sparkled like a luminous beacon in a deep, dark well of despair that has recently opened up within me. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this dread and anger over the egregious actions of the current government…

Some short and shrewd Twitter speeches:

It occurs to me that the most memorable speeches in the world highlighted injustice, created harmony, hope and connection, whereas, in the long run at least, the ones that are forgotten or rarely shared conversely sowed hatred and division.

It would also be remiss of me not to include these fantastic snippets of Nelson Mandela:

I also felt it was worth sharing this deeply felt, perfectly executed and excoriating ‘misogyny’ speech by Julia Gillard, voted the most unforgettable Australian TV moment by Guardian readers:

The speeches in this post have reminded me that democracy and freedom should never be taken for granted. Through the ages they’ve been fought and sacrificed for. Let’s not let complacency, ignorance and indifference rob us now.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Elie Wiesel

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