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There are words delivered from a podium – and then there are words that change the world.
John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) address during the Cold War.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s “Indifference is a friend of the enemy” presentation to Congress.
Robert Kennedy’s moving request for peace after the assassination of Martin Luther King – which is still astonishingly relevant almost four decades later.
What each of these speeches have in common is that they drove change by appealing to ideals that are higher than any one individual.
We remember these words because they are the ones that asked us to rise to the best of our principles. Not because it was easy or popular, but because it was the noble thing to do.
I’ve written before about how this is an era of particular significance because global culture is shifting.
Thirty years ago we all watched the same media outlets, read the same newspapers, and mostly had the same information from which to draw our conclusions. Today, the arrival of social media and cable news networks allow us to embed and entrench ourselves with only those who share our views. As we are seeing, this is not only dangerous to national cohesion, it’s dangerous to democracy itself.
Fortunately, every speech referenced above – and there are countless others – gives us a template in how to emerge together. A cornerstone challenge of our time, I believe, is applying this same “noble response” to our technology.
For better or worse, we live a significant portion of our lives through the filter of the internet, seeing each moment not as it is, but how it will appear on the web.
Seriously, look at this photo.
Whether or not this obsession is healthy is a question I’ll save for a future blog, but for now it’s enough simply to ask ourselves if the values we so admire in person are reflected in what we post and consume online.
Because as you’re reading this right now, millions of conversations are occurring on social media – each representing an opportunity to embody principles that unite or divide us.
Given how new these platforms are, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the way in which we conduct these discussions will determine the trajectory of civilization as a whole – a crossroads we should take very seriously each time we stare at our screens.
Indeed, the podium may have changed, but words can still call to the best of us – which is why words still have the power to change the world.
Use them wisely.