I was recently asked to record a 1-minute acceptance speech for an online award ceremony. Sadly, it was made clear to me that this was a requirement made of each of the five nominees and couldn’t be taken as an indication of future glory. I found it surprisingly difficult to pen the 60-second epilogue which stood an 80% chance of never being heard. Speech writing is hard. You have to be very selective with your choice of words. Every one of them has to mean something. Editing the early drafts is an arduous task, as you’re forced to nip and tuck the flabby text into something acute, to the point, powerful, and perhaps even inspiring.
We use a WhatsApp group for our family Secret Santa, on it, each of us shares a list of the things we want for Christmas. Some of our lists are more specific than others. My Father, for example, shares the exact item and page number from the Argos catalogue, to avoid the risk of being disappointed on Christmas day.
Last year I asked for a book on ‘Speeches that Changed the World’. I have to confess to being slightly disappointed, having just finished reading it. The book, of course, included epic addresses such as Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech and Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches..”, but there was also a good deal of speeches that failed to reach me. Perhaps it was because I was never the intended audience, or perhaps they just weren’t particularly good. One, however, stood out. It was delivered on the 12th April 1999 to a room full of guests in the East Room of the White House by a man I’d never heard of. Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian Jew who had experienced the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war. He survived the war to attend Sorbonne University in Paris, where he later lectured and taught a choir, before becoming a journalist. In 1958 his holocaust memoir ‘La Nuit’ was published, and his profile grew, alongside his educational acumen, as he combined professorships at Yale, Boston University, and the University of New York, later receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize (1986).
In this particular address, made at the brink of a new millennia, Professor Elie Weisel reflected on both the horrors and triumphs of the 20th century. The axis of his speech was a stark warning against the “perils of indifference”.
“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair…. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.”
Today, more than at any time in history, we are resourced to see and know the evil that is being practiced in this world. Few reading this could claim to be unaware of the illegal trade in human beings, with over 40 million people enslaved in the world’s second-largest illicit economy, worth over 150 billion dollars a year. It is considered, by some, to be the great evil of this age. The great evil could however describe people’s indifference to this unspeakable truth.
Professor Weisel, who had more authority than most to speak of the very worst in human potential, still chose to end his speech in promise:
“And so, once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains. He has accompanied the old man I have become throughout these years of quest and struggle. And together we walk towards the new millennium, carried by profound fear and extraordinary hope”.
Profound fear and extraordinary hope describe well the feeling of many as we look towards an uncertain future. My hope is that, above all, my life cannot be judged by history as indifferent to the suffering of others.
Written by Bryn Frere-Smith
Founder of Blue Bear Coffee Co.
*See the Professor Weisel’s full speech here. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ewieselperilsofindifference.html