The Power of the Word
By Isaac Parks
We sometimes think of rhetoric as something devious, but in truth, it can be a force for evil or for good.
Every day we speak to one another, communicating ideas, needs, wants, and emotions; yet it is rare that anyone invokes the full power of words. Words, in their full capacity, can accomplish greatness like the Camp David Accords, and horrors like Hitler’s rise to power. As Canadian author Robin Sharma put it, “Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.” How can such small things as words have such great effect?
Words, by nature, create. God used the spoken word to create the entire universe. People use the spoken word to create emotions and passions in their audience. Speeches have little authority by themselves; words must be wielded. If a man has a loaded revolver in his hands, but does not know how to use the weapon, the revolver would still have the potential for great power, but due to the incompetence of its bearer, the revolver would have no power in fact. Words are like the revolver.
Historical examples of this power abound: Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war upon Japan, and Winston Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour.” These words carried great influence, but it was Henry, Roosevelt, and Churchill that truly possessed the authority, not the orations themselves.
What power do words truly have, then? Words embody expression, but it is the speaker who holds the ability to formulate the sentiment that requires expression. Words are an art that allows one to see into a person’s emotions. Unfortunately, these great vessels of good can also be used to deceive. By connecting real emotions to unrelated topics—a kind of rhetorical red herring—words can be used to manipulate the audience into a false mindset. Eloquent speakers have a great responsibility to be brutally honest with their audience, so as to ensure that they do not misdirect their listeners.
Ideas are of course usually accompanied by words that incite emotion, but it is not necessarily the emotion in the speech that carries power. Rather, when rightly composed, it is the idea that is expressed which holds the authority. An example of such a speech is Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference.” Throughout this piece, Wiesel makes several appeals to emotion, but he uses these only to obtain his audience’s attention. The power that this speech carries comes from Wiesel’s expression of an idea.
Which, then, is more important: the expression of an emotion, or the expression of a thesis? The question itself is flawed, because emotion and thought are linked. An idea like freedom is connected to an emotion like joy, or oppression to indignation. When an orator appeals only to reason, his words have no emotion placed upon them, but because of the audience’s personal experiences, emotion will be felt throughout the audience. If a speaker does not present a proper purpose for the emotion he incites, then the audience will find an idea with which to associate their emotion. It is this which empowers negligent or malicious speakers to manipulate people, as we discussed above.
Thus, due to words’ joint appeal to both logic and passion, speech is the most powerful form of communication. We must respect the great gift of words and use them appropriately, if we wish to have an eloquent and honest world.
Isaac Parks is a homeschooled high school freshman living in Gig Harbor, WA. His hobbies include reading, playing the piano, épée fencing, watching movies, and playing family board games. He is considering majoring in biomedical engineering, immunology, or law.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like this author profile of Albert Einstein, this post on the history of poetry, or this student essay on Lord Acton’s claim that power always corrupts. Or check out our most recent episode of our podcast, Anchored, in which our founder Jeremy Tate interviews celebrated Ivy League scholar Dr. Cornel West.
Published on 22nd January, 2021.