Over Christmas vacation, I saw the movie Darkest Hour, a biopic about Winston Churchill that focused on the decision to enter into peace talks with Germany in May 1940. From our historically privileged viewpoint, Britain’s resistance to the Nazis seems like a foregone conclusion, but that decision was anything but certain in that pivotal May, with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk by a formidable German military.
The movie manages to ratchet up the tension despite the audience knowing the ending, and Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech is beautifully depicted. After Churchill finishes that speech, all of Parliament erupts into applause. During the furor, one member of the opposing party quietly asks another, “What just happened?” The person sitting next to him responds, “Churchill mobilized the English language, and sent it into war.”
“Words are cheap,” the popular saying goes. Unfortunately, this cliché has never been more evident. Words and communication are often no more than excuses for venting emotions. We take out our phones and scroll through thousands of trite statements and poorly worded exclamations, and even if we come across words of significance, they barely have time to register amidst the noise. I’ll only make brief mention of our political system, where politicians seem to have abandoned the attempt to find intelligent answers to the great questions of our day, and instead resort to words that will entertain the widest range of people or accumulate the most responses on a social media feed.
In that context, I heard the line that language itself was mobilized and sent to war, and the statement struck a deep chord within me. I love the idea of an age where words really could make that much of a difference. In Churchill’s speech, the probability of imminent defeat was transformed into the chance for a nation to stand against evil, and a humiliating retreat was turned into a great victory. Words were all that were used, words that today may have been relegated to the space underneath an advertisement or a video, but those few words changed everything.
When I think about why I enjoy writing, I think about the power of the right words, in the right moment, to change everything. For most of us, we will never experience this opportunity on a grand, Churchill-ian scale, but the small instances of this are no less miraculous. Perhaps it will be the right words that help a friend see a frustrating moment as a great challenge to be conquered. Maybe there’s one person, unknowingly set in his ways, who hears the right words that open a whole new way to see the world. There might be another, frozen in indecision, who hears the right words that help him move forward.
The example I’m about to give is tainted by a long, controversial history of a war that never ended and another with questionable motives, but I think the moment is still worth remembering. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, fear and uncertainty plagued the country. After ten days of confusion, wondering how we were to move forward, the president addressed the nation, giving details about who attacked us, and about what our next steps were going to be.
Rhetoric was not one of President Bush’s strengths, but I have never forgotten his speech that evening. I was a teenager, wondering into what kind of world my adulthood was about to begin. Like millions of us, I watched on television as the president spoke unfamiliar words like Taliban and Al Qaeda, words that we now can’t imagine not knowing. I heard how we were entering a great effort to ensure an attack like this never happened again. What I remember most was one line, a line that promised the resolve of our country. No matter what happened, the president assured us, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
There was power in those words, no matter how much it was squandered or abused later. And that power is why I come back to writing, no matter how uninspired I feel, no matter how long I’ve neglected it, no matter how trivial or unimportant my efforts may appear. Language is a skill that must be honed continually, and a skill that is frighteningly easy to lose. Words can only make a difference if they are used properly. I worry that when the moment to speak comes, the blade of speech may be dull, blunted by too many videos watched on my smartphone or too many TV shows watched on Netflix.
I also worry that we may be past the stage where our lives can be changed by words. I worry that our society has gone too far, and that even if another “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” were uttered, another Gettysburg Address composed, or another “I Have a Dream” proclaimed, we’d listen to it long enough to feel warm and fuzzy, but immediately seek out the next electronic stimulus. The Internet is a powerful tool, even a wonderful resource at times, and I plan, along with my fellow writers on this blog, to make better use of it. With that said, the Internet also has many immensely dangerous pits and snares, traps that can corrupt us and destroy our wills with insidious, apathy-inducing force. If we’re not careful, our souls may be weakened beyond repair, too long irradiated by the pallid light of computer screens.
As I think about the year we’ve just begun, I want to make one belated resolution. I want to find other people who think words matter. I want to join together with people, not because they have the same opinions or beliefs, but because they believe while words can be cheap, they should never be misused. I want to meet people who believe that discussion is not just a way to reinforce your opinion, that words are the vehicles of ideas instead of the props of emotional satisfaction, and that maybe, just maybe, a speech can change the world.
How our world needs the change! Let us all resolve not to throw words around carelessly, to be ready with a thoughtful answer instead of a reaction, and, most importantly, to act on what we say. Never surrender to the urge to lash out without thought; resist the easy platitude and stand for the hard truth. There will be plenty of battles to fight in the coming year. The time has come for the English language to be sent to war once again.