It’s the season for speeches. Actors receive awards and thank people. Generally, we know what to expect. But few of us expected the reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globe awards.
In the midst of the mess of power and sex, the #metoo movement, and the Harvey Weinstein fallout, her nine-minute speech offered the hope that ‘a new day is on the horizon’. It was what people – wearied by intemperate, shallow, and mean speech – needed. Afterwards, Meryl Streep said, ‘She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice.’
As it turns out, she did have a choice and has declined the prospect. Despite this, however, her words certainly did ‘launch a rocket’.
It’s the season for the big films. And surely Gary Oldman has bought a new suit and is keeping his diary free so that he can receive awards for playing Winston Churchill in ‘The Darkest Hour’.
We already know the story. We know that Churchill’s speeches were a major part of his strategy to galvanise a nation, but in the cinema we experience something of their power. The film ends with Churchill delivering his blistering ‘we will fight them on the beaches…’ speech in Parliament. Viscount Halifax, one of the politicians arguing for extending further peace talks with Hitler is asked ‘What just happened?’ His despondent answer: ‘He [Churchill] mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.’
Whether it’s 1940 or 2018, fewer than ten minutes of speech can change the course of history. Words can open up new worlds of possibility, they can help people believe, they can inspire imaginations, they can begin new stories. We are not Oprah, nor are we Churchill, but our words will affect others today. Who knows what they will bring to birth? What will they crush?
The Bible bears witness to this power. It’s why Proverbs keeps circling back to the need to learn to speak wisely. It’s why Jesus, the Word made flesh, recognised that our words are the overflow of our heart. It’s why James warned early Christians about the power of the tongue.
It’s why the ancient prayer, ‘may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight’ (Psalm 19:14) retains its importance for all of us who are just about to speak.
Neil is the Imagine Project Director at LICC