At the Presidential Inauguration, Amanda Gorman stood out. Among the politicians and celebrities, a poet who most Americans had never heard of before became a household name overnight. She did it through the power of the spoken word.
The use of language by leaders has long impacted its citizens. Donald Trump abuses language, using it as a tool to form divisiveness, prejudice, and hatred. His tone is sharp and interruptive. He downplayed a pandemic that has cost America around 400,000 lives so far. To anyone who is still making excuses for Trump’s words, don’t look further than the numbers: while the US composes 4% of the world’s population, it has 20% of its cases.
What is not said is sometimes as important as what is. Trump refusing to denounce white supremacists over and over again finally led to men in Camp Auschwitz T-shirts storming the capital building.
President Biden is a completely different model for American citizens when it comes to the spoken word. He was born with a stutter and had to learn to overcome it. Now he uses language to try to bring unity back to the United States and instill values that felt meaningless during the time of Trump, such as empathy and honesty. As he recently stated, “We will level with you when we make a mistake. We’ll straight up say what happened.” You may not believe these words or find them naïve, but the tone of our new leader suggests evenhandedness and candor. His voice sounds benign, even paternal.
Words that are spoken can have a tremendous impact, as proven by the damage they have caused in the past four years. Yet thanks to a twenty-two-year-old poet, we’ve been reminded that we can celebrate language instead of abusing it, that we can sing it like musical notes, that we can listen to words and well up inside, even if for a moment.
If you have any skills in the poetry department, don’t put them to waste. If not, honor the nation’s writers of the spoken word by listening to the great orations, from the most famous speeches to the modern poets, from “I Have a Dream” to “The Hill We Climb.” Then the next time you speak with your friends, don’t ask what they’re watching, ask what they’re reading. And this time, remember the author’s name.