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Why do anything? Just make a speech

A few weeks ago India’s foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, stood before the United Nations and read a speech. Nothing peculiar in that – the UN, after all, excels in listening to speeches. But there was a problem: it was the wrong speech.

What Mr. Krishna read out was actually the speech of the Portuguese foreign minister. Only an aide noticed anything wrong – the speaker and his audience seemed oblivious to the problem. And afterwards, the minister was unrepentant about his gaffe: “Unfortunately, it happened,” he told reporters. “There was nothing wrong in it. There were so many papers spread in front of me so by mistake the wrong speech was taken out.”

I have two reactions to share with you here. First, to note in passing that Mr Krishna is 78 years old. I have no idea why people of such advanced years are made foreign ministers of countries seeking a permanent place on the UN Security Council – but they are. There are exceptions, of course, but once you pass a certain age the likelihood is that you will not have the clarity of mind and acuity of perception to live up to such a demanding job.

The second reaction is more important, and more worrying. I note the increasing ‘speechification’ of our lives: it has become less important to think and to act, than it has to merely read out a speech. Wherever I look, people are giving an address, delivering a speech, conducting a presentation, making some remarks and the like.

What’s wrong with that? Just this: speeches have become a substitute for deep thought and for emphatic action. They require little cogitation, and are in any case mostly written by others. They repeat the same old trite truisms and banal bromides; they pretend to have noble intention and be informed by high ideal; they are dull, boring, tedious and repetitive.

Even when speeches are good, they are just words. Even the glistening locutions of the master orator are just that: words. Words only matter if they contribute either to deeper thought or to meaningful action. Otherwise they are as ephemeral as passing breezes. And I fear that the kinds of speeches being made by leaders and diplomats and chief executives are just that: stilted, protocol-laden, vacuous and devoid of substance.

Consider the case of Mr Krishna. Had he even bothered to familiarize himself with his own speech before reading it? Clearly not, otherwise he would have spotted his error within the first paragraph. Yet why should he know his own speech, when he and his ilk make many dozens of them, all equally meaningless, in a year? And what of the audience? Who even bothers to listen, or expects to hear anything interesting? All that is needed is some polite clapping at the end. No one is provoked to think or spurred to action. Just yawn until the next one begins.

This is serious. When speeches are deemed more important than insights, and when protocol trumps action, we are in trouble. If you don’t believe me, consider events in Libya. In the early part of that country’s civil war, rather than do something about the massacre of his own people by a deranged despot, UN panjandrums and diplomatic dodderers were making speeches: “expressing their condemnation” and “decrying the violence” and “urging restraint.” All this while innocents were slaughtered by the hour.

Put a sock in it, people. Words do matter, but not words like those. Words can make or break empires, inspire whole generations, provoke scientific breakthroughs. But by reducing our words to mere repetitive, predictable noises we are reducing ourselves to parrots.

Next time you make some speech-like utterances somewhere, do the world a favour and make them short, sharp, different and meaningful. Otherwise we’re all just spinning our wheels in the sand.

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