What if you were held accountable for every word you ever said?

Anglican priest Malcolm Guite wrote a poem in 2011 in response to a tragedy, titled What If. The poem reflects on what it means to be responsible about the things we say — and it’s only become more relevant.
Malcolm Guite walking his dog near his home in Cambridge, England. He's the former chaplain at Girton College, part of the University of Cambridge. (Submitted by Malcolm Guite)

In 2011, Malcolm Guite wrote a poem in response to the assassination attempt of a U.S. politician. He thought he'd publish it once and likely never revisit the grim incident. 

But in the last ten years, the Anglican priest's poem has only become more relevant. 

Entitled What If, it reflects on what would happen if we faced consequences for every word we'd ever used, whether spoken aloud, uttered under our breath or written. 

Before the shooting, Gabby Giffords, a gun control advocate and then U.S. senator, had received considerable opposition from Republicans and the National Rifle Association for her views. One poster from a conservative fundraising organization used the image of a rifle crosshairs to single out Giffords and other Democratic lawmakers.

Guite felt that the language and imagery used to oppose Giffords was vitriolic and at least partly influenced the attack. His poem was meant to reflect on the power language can have on the real world.

Evoking online discourse, particularly on social media, Guite's poem also reflects on the contemporary implications of a gospel passage, in which Jesus says: 

"But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." – Matthew 12:36 - 27

In the decade since he first published his poem, Guite believes divisive rhetoric has only gotten worse. 

He's reposted What If on his personal blog 3 times over the last two years. He has also found the poem circulating on social media after major political events, like the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Guite talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the power language has on identity, politics, and how we understand the world we live in. 

I was so struck by something you said right off the top, Malcolm, this idea of what if we took this seriously, you know, there's a cheeky audacious little thought, what if we took this biblical passage and we paid it some heed? Why do you think that's central?

It's something we've come to realize, and particularly in the age of the internet and social media, but it was true back in biblical times. And we sometimes think that, well, it's only really what you do that matters and anybody can say anything. But speech is also an action. We're verbal creatures and language is the medium in which our minds move and mix. So words do have extraordinary power. They used to have these posters during the Second World War about people not speaking, saying "loose lips sink ships." 

There's something true about that. And often, particularly when we use words to demonize other people or we seek by insinuation to undercut the very basis of their being, then I think we're doing real violence. The fact that it isn't a physical blow to a body doesn't mean it isn't a psychological blow to a psyche as it were. And in the end, it's with our psyche, with ourselves that we weave the deepest hurts as well as the greatest joys.

You know, I'm curious about the rebound effect here. Do you think the way a person speaks shapes who that person is at a very elemental level?

I do very much so. I think it's not just the way they speak. Because of course, the way we speak is itself born out of the way we hear and the way we read. 

So I think we really need to soak ourselves in rich language. If you take a great poet like Shakespeare, he was deeply concerned with language. He says — very modestly in his sonnets about his own poetry project — "all my best is dressing old words new, Spending again what is already spent." But if you think of language as currency like that, Shakespeare is increasing its value. He's not subjecting things to verbal inflation and making the same word mean less and less. In his hands, it means more and more. 

But there's a really interesting example of the reverse. It's an exact example of how you can almost tell that a person has been corrupted by their language before the language issues in some deed of genuine corruption or evil. The poet W. H. Auden wrote a brilliant essay about Shakespeare's play Othello and about how it was that the evil character Iago, with his motiveless malignancy, manages to corrupt the noble Othello and basically give him fake news about his wife, Desdemona to feed his jealousy. 

There's an awful moment when he [Othello] finally starts to believe that his wife is unfaithful. Of course, which is completely untrue, at the insinuations of Iago. Othello says of her, she is "the fountain from the which my current runs. Or else runs dry," which is a very beautiful, refreshing image of how we can be a source for each other. And then suddenly language turns. So he says this, I cannot keep her "as a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in." 

That movement from the fountain to the cistern is a movement from exalted to degraded language. And in a sense, we see the corruption of the soul before it issues in the action of the murder.

So if that is true, and if the reverse is true, that we can be nourished and made whole by certain images and words, I feel as though I need a prescription from you. 

Fortunately, what we have is the most wonderful medicine cabinet that's been carefully kept and preserved for us in the whole body of English literature. 

So if I'm going to prescribe you a medicine of good words — I'm going to also have to say to you take it slowly, a spoonful at a time. This is sweet medicine, so savour it and really rest your mind in the beauty of language.- Malcolm Guite, poet and Anglican priest

And one of the things that poetry can do is not only enrich your language, it can suddenly make you see the world in fresh colours, and get a sense of the height and depth. And one of the things that I find most demeaning and difficult about the flat screen world, where we're having to live even more and more during this [pandemic], is that it is literally flattening everything out. We trip from one thing to another. We hardly take in the full resonance of a word, before we move on to the next one. And then you know, we're scrolling on.

One person defined poetry as language slowed down. So if I'm going to prescribe you a medicine of good words — I'm going to also have to say to you take it slowly, a spoonful at a time. This is sweet medicine, so savour it and really rest your mind in the beauty of language. It's not that we don't ever think about or confront violence or difficult things, and that sometimes we need the words that are adequate to that as well. But a great poet will bring words together in such a way that they bring you up short. And you suddenly have to think about something in a new way.

That brings us right into something I wanted to ask you about. I found your "What if" [poem] on Twitter in the days after the attack on the US Capitol. Donald Trump, while [U.S.] president, had given a speech that struck some listeners as an incitement to riot. 

How do you apportion the responsibility between the one who speaks and the one who hears? 

That's a very good question. Now, it's extremely difficult for me on the other side of the Atlantic to make a judgement on this. I do think his language was incendiary. I think, given the whole arc of what he was trying to do, it's reasonable to suppose that he intended it to have the effect it did. But that doesn't mean that every person who heard him is completely free of the responsibility for choosing what to do with what they hear.

One of the great things about poetry and about a general education in languages that teaches you how to listen critically as well as appreciatively. And it teaches you how to weigh words and how to weigh an argument. And to ask yourself what it means to say that "you won't keep your country."

So what was the power and quality of his language? And what were its effects? Well, there's probably a gradation between those who knew perfectly well that this was false, but wanted a riot. There are those who had been genuinely deceived, and really thought this was a moment of crisis in which their actions might somehow save things. You then have to ask the question, how easily were they deceived? How many stages and gradations was it before they swallowed the lie? What were the opportunities that they had to talk to their neighbours and to hear a different view. 

And this is a thing where social media is difficult because a lot of the people who were fired up in that way, had had nothing but that particular narrative for years. Because inside, as it were, the famous algorithms of Facebook and Twitter — it just feeds you what you already have and what you want to hear more of. There isn't an algorithm that says, "have you considered the contrary point of view? Just imagine this."

This segment was written and produced by Arman Aghbali.


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