By Jerome Miller
Newswise — Many who praise the acting in The King’s Speech–the potential “best picture” about Britain’s tongue-tied George VI–find the film itself short on substance. A wit I admire remarked that only the British could make a whole movie about a stutter. It’s true that the film is all talk. But ours is, after all, the great epoch of the talk-show. So it may be that we’ve something to learn from this film.
Speaking is what makes us wholly human. Participation in the shared world of language enables us to become fully ourselves. Hence, it’s not just the painter, the poet, the musician, who labors long to “find her voice.” This is a longing in each of us. Indeed, insofar as the moral order summons us to speak up for it, finding one’s voice is something like a universal calling.
Public speaking–rhetorical skill–is the quintessence of political prowess. It’s how we sway each other–how we move or manipulate, inspire or incite. It’s how our love or anger circulates. In our culture, talk is contagious with power. The omnipresent and omnipotent microphone doesn’t just magnify the voice. It magnetizes it. In the1930s, the setting for The King’s Speech, the epoch of the microphone was just beginning. Now, its influence is uncontested. The tone of power has many modulations–the rabid hectoring of Rush, the chatty psycho-speak of Oprah, the polished self-assurance of Will. Each has, I suppose, its captivating allure.
In such an epoch, a speech defect is the most embarrassing of incapacities. The more “unmanly” kind of impotence is private, and now rectifiable by drugs. Stuttering is an excruciating humiliation because it makes one’s ineptitude public. If one is born to royalty, the embarrassment is raised to a much higher power. Proud and desperate for majesty, George VI becomes helpless in front of a microphone. His malady is not the result of some heroic, patriotic valor. It’s the pith of frailty and fallibility.
This frailty is what we see as the movie begins. As it evolves, we’re led into some painful but happy ironies.
Desperate to overcome his impotence, the would-be King places himself in the hands of a speech therapist who compels even royalty to meet him in his seedy lodgings. The king isn’t allowed to stand on ceremony. He has to sit on his bottom and agree to be addressed as a commoner. He’s required to say a stream of obscenities to loosen his tongue. His “treatment” doesn’t relieve him of his embarrassment. It exacerbates it. But this is just what sets in motion an uncanny reversal. George VI would have done almost anything to avoid being brought down from his majesty. But being brought low by his stutter is, it turns out, a comic gift.
Impotence lowers us from the heights we want to occupy. That’s why it’s an antidote to the arrogance of infallibility broadcast by the microphone. George VI doesn’t get rid of his stutter or find a commanding voice. But at the end he no longer envies those who have one. The climactic scene of the movie, as I see it, is not the King’s final speech. It’s the scene where he begins to realize, as he watches a newsreel of Hitler arousing a frenzied Nurenburg crowd, that there’s something redemptive about his own incapacity. Fallibility is the great leveler. Acceptance of it is the basis of democratic culture. Acknowledging his inability to speak on his own doesn’t render the King dumb. It enables him to speak humbly in the common tongue. When he describes to the radio audience the terrible ordeal the war will entail, he just barely makes it through. That is just what makes him the living symbol of the commonwealth itself.
In recent weeks, there’s been much talk of our need for civility–and one paradigmatic example of it. Civility is often defined negatively as the alternative to demagoguery–the tragic possibility that always haunts democracy. But as David Brooks recently reminded us, civility is a positive disposition that’s engendered by the virtue of humility–a shared recognition of our fallibility. This virtue is not often cultivated today: enamored by the sound of our own voice, we forget how to listen and why we should. We tend to think that listening, like humility, is for losers.
President Obama’s Tucson speech, like The King’s Speech, suggests otherwise. It’s an act of humility when a person at the height of his power asks the community to measure him by the fidelity of his service to a murdered nine-year old child. There’s profound civic wisdom in affiliating with frailty. Perhaps each of us should consider how to speak humbly, each in our own way. Modesty is, it seems, strangely ennobling. In a democracy, it’s the one kind of greatness that’s indispensable.
(Jerome Miller is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Salisbury University in Maryland.)