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Blog Bernard Letendre

Social responsibility

Words matter

Il faudra leur dire” is a famous French song from 1987 by singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel. The melody is absolutely beautiful, the lyrics perhaps even more. The chorus, sang by a children’s choir, goes in part like this:

Les mots qu’on reçoit

C’est comme des parfums qu’on respire

Which I would translate to English as:

The words that we receive

Are like fragrances that we breathe

Memory works in strange ways. I was reading a review of a Winston Churchill biography this morning that touched on his character and the power of his oratory when I suddenly found myself humming this song, then singing it to myself (very badly). I hadn’t heard it in a very long time so at first I was grasping for the words. After listening to it a couple of times it quickly came back to me – as beautiful a song as I remembered from all those years ago.

The song is about the importance of being kind to each other and about the power of words to do good as well as harm.

Rhetoric, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the art of speaking or writing effectively”, used to form, together with grammar and logic, the Trivium of a Classical liberal arts education. As a teenager, I attended a Jesuit school where the teachers tried hard to keep the Trivium alive within the constraints of a twentieth century high school curriculum. We were taught to read and write carefully and with precision, to mount a convincing argument, and were initiated to the ancient arts of debating and public speaking. We learned about famous orators of Antiquity like Cato the Elder and the great Cicero. We also, in the process, learned about the way that words can shape and influence people and events.

I learned very young to love words, written or spoken. I love reading, writing and speaking. I have long believed that words matter greatly and have made it my business over the years to understand their effect on people – myself and others – and to learn to wield them as effectively as I could – in French as well as in English, verbally and in writing. I have witnessed first hand during my career how the right words can reassure in periods of doubt; how poorly chosen words can create fear and anxiety; how a good idea poorly delivered fizzles while a terrible idea cleverly articulated takes on a life of its own.

When people speak or write, it’s all too easy to dismiss whatever they are saying as “just words”. But words and language, whether in a song or in a play, in a poem or in a speech, or simply in a conversation between two people, can carry and elicit powerful emotions, from the greatest tenderness to the most unspeakable loathing. They can be deployed to educate young minds or to influence older ones, to manipulate others and bend them to one’s will; to shape the course of events and to point the arrow of History in a new direction, sometimes good, sometimes not. Words have been known to uplift the spirit and to poison the mind. Words, when written or spoken with great skill, carry great power.

Words, it is rightly said, must go hand in hand with deeds and even the most beautiful words can be twisted, perverted and emptied of their apparent meaning, as my wife pointed out when she heard me singing the song that I was mentioning earlier:

If it’s true that people can love each other

If children everywhere are all the same

Then someone should tell them that

The words that we receive

Are like fragrances that we breathe

Should tell them that

It’s easy to give them

A little more love than usual

“Do you remember,” she asked me, “the young girls with angelic voices and angelic faces who sang that exact song for all the parents at school all those years ago? Those angelic girls who verbally bullied our daughter for years then sang that beautiful song in her presence without batting an eyelash?”