Katie Hopkins and the Lady in Red

The previous two posts featured Oxford Union debate speeches for and against the motion This House Supports No Platforming. Those speeches, here and here, followed a couple from students who were competitive debaters.

Today we hear from Katie Hopkins, speaking against the motion.

Whenever I hear Katie Hopkins speak I am assailed by two reactions –

  1. What a phenomenally accomplished speaker she is, and
  2. She must be the rudest person on the planet.

We’ll return to 1 but for the moment let’s deal with 2. No one hurls insults around in quite such an intemperate fashion unless either they lack the wit to insult soberly or because they intend the insults to be taken not entirely seriously. Hopkins manifestly does have the wit, so let’s watch through our fingers and try to enjoy the ride. In the course of this speech she does actually insult – soberly – just one person, one who is not present but should have been. That particular barb is not wasted.

I have previously on this blog noted that those with a natural facility for public speaking often have difficulty in sticking to the point because they have never needed to learn the disciplines that enable ordinary folk to shoot from the hip. Hopkins epitomises this. Whenever she seems to be getting to grips with the matter in hand, she suddenly disappears over the horizon astride an admittedly hilarious digression. And then …

At 10:50 a lady in red climbs to her feet, asking Hopkins actually to address the motion. The transformation is so magically instant that someone more cynical than I might suspect that she and her interjection had been planted.

Hopkins is a different woman. She stops stalking the aisle, returns to the dispatch box, and begins seven minutes of astonishingly well argued case against the motion. I suddenly realise that she is conscious of the failing I highlighted above. She knows her speaking lacks discipline because now she is using paper to keep herself on the rails. She doesn’t look at it much, she doesn’t need to, but just enough to put across her message unerringly and with magnificent power.

Furthermore, to my delight and unlike her predecessors, she addresses the motion from the viewpoint of audience members and their right to hear.

After the comedy-relief, this turns into an outstandingly good speech…

…thanks to the lady in red.

Toby Young: a journalist speaks

The previous post featured an Oxford Union debate speech for the motion This House Supports No Platforming. It was the first speech following a couple from students who were competitive debaters; and the speaker was Robert French. Today’s offering followed it; is in opposition to the motion; and is delivered by Toby Young.

Bald opening – good.

Almost immediately after registering that point, I sense that I see a reason. Young is speaking like a journalist’s article. You don’t see articles opening with “Ladies and Gentlemen”, or simpered thanks for being invited, or any such time-wasting preambles, instead they come straight to the point. Young has come to the point, which happens to be taking issue with something that was said earlier. I find myself wondering how his delivery style might vary when he reaches his prepared message.

I get my answer: he picks up his script and begins reading it. My heart sinks.

He reads very well, with plenty of expression, but not as much expression as if he’d known how to structure the message for speaking (as opposed to reading) and trusted himself to do without a script. The message is well-conceived, well-put, well-argued, but travels here like a high-powered car with the handbrake on. I find it frustrating: this man has so much more personality than is being revealed here. He has the skill to commit an argument to paper in a way that will absorb the reader (I’d be happy with half of that), but not the skill simply to stand and speak in a way that will absorb a listener to the same extent.

If he reads these words his reaction is likely to be that he hasn’t had any complaints heretofore, and I’d believe him. This shortcoming is so widespread that audiences don’t expect better. But better is very easily achieved. He’s good enough, but he could be brilliant.

Though his message is well-argued, I have to take issue with one thing. Like others he addresses the motion through the rights of speakers. But it represents a double tyranny.

No Platforming denies not just those who would speak but those who would hear.

I have a mantra – it’s even on my business cards – Communication is not what you say, it’s what they hear. I am obsessed with audiences, for a wide range of reasons which I will spare you, but the speakers in this debate seem to be overlooking them.

I think that the only time Toby Young mentions the right of the audience in this matter is when quoting others. And that’s a pity.

No platforming: a lawyer speaks

In May 2019, the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion, This House Supports No Platforming.

It happens with some of their debates that speakers take part who are students that debate competitively. It is good experience. The posted videos of their efforts are accompanied by caveats saying that what they say might not reflect their own views. It’s a laudable system, and I have been known to critique them here, but I have decided against it with this debate: the subject is too important to be camouflaged by such matters, and we have enough speakers without them.

Nevertheless there is one more competitive student debater than there should have been. Naz Shah MP had been booked to speak for the motion, but dropped out. You can read about it here. Therefore we shall hear from just two proposition speakers against three opposition speakers. After the two opposing positions had been opened by students, the first for the proposition was Robert French.

It’s a nice light-hearted opening, and well received by the house. Then he turns to the matter in hand.

He’s a Judge. I mention that because of the way he conforms to stereotype, opening his observations by examining how No Platforming has been officially defined. It Is a useful contribution suitably early in the proceedings. He also lays down the marker that probably both sides of the aisle can agree that certain extremes could correctly be excluded, so this is likely to be a debate as to what constitutes acceptable extremes. We shall see whether he is right.

He cites an obviously dismissible extreme in the case of unlawful speech, but then refers to its “penumbra”, a grey area, around that. I regard legality as binary, therefore not possessed of a penumbra.

This is very obviously a lawyer speaking. It is helpful in some respects, but tiresome in others. Lawyers are often sufferers from what I call bureaucritis and he is no exception. It’s a mental condition that has difficulty accepting that common-sense and life-learning often outstrip pure scholarship. He repeatedly declares that there are judgements to be made, and that in this case the University needs to make them. It doesn’t seem to occur to his bureaucratically indoctrinated mind that the audience, or potential audience, is  better equipped to make them.

As far as I am concerned the market will make its own decision, and the market is always right. On these occasions I recall when the late Christopher Hitchens paused in a speech about freedom of expression, and invited each member of his audience to consider whether there was anyone to whom they would happily entrust the right to decide what they should be allowed to hear or read. It went very quiet.

As this debate progresses we shall be hearing from Toby Young, Katie Hopkins, Mariah Idrissi and Ann Widdecombe.

 

 

Bret Weinstein deals in truth.

On May 22nd, 2018, Dr Bret Weinstein testified to the members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He’s reading his speech. I find it difficult to criticise him for this. Even though I am known to be a determined advocate in favour of shooting from the hip when speaking in public, I concede that there are occasions which not only permit a script but when it is effectively demanded. (I make this point in my book, The Face & Tripod.) For a range of reasons, for instance timing, the need for precise terminology (this is testimony) and provision of a transcript, this is one such. Nevertheless my suspicion that Dr Weinstein is able to shoot from the hip when appropriate (and knows it) is reinforced during the Q&A that follows at 5:26.

The tale he narrates is horrifying even if sadly familiar: it describes a riot at a university. There is a political movement which routinely shuts down free expression and even ruins careers and lives. It does it for apparently any reason or none, by use of methods which range from smear to serious violence.

Who are they? What do they want? Who is pulling their strings? Who is financing them? Dr Weinstein offers at 03:20, a clue to their motives.

The students were on a mission. They were unwitting tools of a witting movement […] what is occurring on college campuses is about power and control.

Like most I have theories without proof of that “witting movement”, but I do know that all of us must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to preserve free speech. The seriousness cannot be overstated. Without it civilisation collapses. Free speech is under threat on all flanks, from legislators to shadow-banning social media to the classroom. The threat has metastasised. The attackers present their cases skilfully, claiming all manner of sympathetically warm and cuddly motives, but any threat to free speech, in whatever guise, must be repelled.

During the Q&A, which I commend, it emerges how truth can be made – without anyone having to wrestle inconveniently with trying to gainsay it – to fall into one of the many categories of ‘unacceptable’. And when that happens we can imagine how easily falsehood can be injected into the consequent vacuum. Yes, it’s as dangerous as that.

Dr Weinstein’s testimony was delivered about a year ago, and described events a year earlier than that. Have things improved in the mean time? I do not think so. The adversary is clever and cunning and mutates like a virus to re-emerge in different forms.

In my next post I intend to begin addressing a series of speeches in a recent debate at the Oxford Union on this subject.

Mahathir Mohamad: carefully unexceptionable

On 16 June Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, spoke at the Cambridge Union. When I read that he had raised both dust and hackles in the process I went searching for it. A speech does not have to be controversial to be good, but a great deal can be learnt from the process of raising controversy.

This video I found was disappointingly calm and courteous. The speech was shot from the hip, so revealed a proper speaker; but, while purporting to be a potted recent history of his country delivering a few polite little barbs in the direction of the west in general and Britain in particular, it gave us nothing to generate more than the occasional naughty chuckle. Where was all this controversy?

The answer was in the Q&A that followed, and to find that I needed a different video…

If you want to see the beginning of the speech you can find it via the previous link, but I wouldn’t bother: you haven’t missed much. There’s a bit of milling around while he gets onto the platform, the obligatory thank-fest, and some stuff about Malaysia having – as Malaya – been a British protectorate. In all, just under 2 minutes.

As I said earlier, this speech is frankly unexceptional and unexceptionable. The questions and the controversy kick off only when he sits down just after 16:00. If that floats your boat, enjoy.

I must say that the Chairman of the event, whose barely audible questions (black mark to the sound crew) tease more controversial stuff out of Mahathir, does an impressive job of dismantling the carefully conveyed jovial great-uncle image that Mahathir had created with his unexceptional speech.

Ha-Joon Chang hasn’t a clue.

The Oxford Union recently hosted a talk with Q&A from Dr Ha-Joon Chang. He spoke about wealth inequality.

I selected, for the link on his name, Dr Chang’s own website, because it lists and links so many of his writings, interviews, etc. I have browsed extensively around them for one very good reason. This guy is obviously somewhat learned; how does he come across in his writing, conversation, and so on? Quite well in fact.

Those are relevant questions because as a public speaker he hasn’t a clue. You could be forgiven for thinking that impossible for a university lecturer, so let me present my evidence.

The first half hour is dreadfully tedious, but in a strange way. Often, tedium comes from the voice sticking on a monotone. Dr Chang however uses plenty of expression in his voice. The problem is rather in what he says. He has mountains of data which he delivers in a manner which is as indigestible as can be imagined. If you dip in at random for a few seconds at a time you will see an animated speaker, keen to impart information which fascinates him. On the other hand if you watch for a sustained period you will be at a loss to decipher what he is trying to tell you. He flits with even less observable system than does the cliché butterfly.

A common feature on this blog, when the speaker is using a script, is for me to point out how the rhythm and tenor lifts when the speaker’s eyes lift and he addresses the audience directly. In Dr Chang’s case it’s the reverse: his ad lib digressions actually reduce the pace, because he tends to insert huge pauses. Pauses are wonderful for letting an important point sink in, and I sense that is how Dr Chang is intending to use them, but the audience does need to know what the point is supposed to be.

At around 24:33 he begins a personal anecdote that I really want to be an audience-grabber, because the speech desperately needs one. He narrates it so lamely that it’s the proverbial lead-balloon, which is sad because it’s a good story.

At around the half-hour mark it begins to emerge through the fog what his eventual message is, and at that point things lift a little. In fact it builds enough so that at 34:00 he actually gets quite a respectable laugh from the audience.

The speech ends at 43:50 to be succeeded by Q&A.

Let me put my cards on the table: I disagree with his message. But then I frequently work on speeches whose message I regard as misguided, and if anything I enjoy those most because they create for me a target. Can I help to make this message so coherent that it might sway even me?

So no: my attitude to the speech was not jaded by my disagreement. In fact I remind you that I considered the best part of the speech began when I came to know what the message was. And I had to sit through thirty minutes of clueless tedium to reach that.

Ann Widdecombe rants

This blog has been quiet for the past week because I’ve been away, and not only have I not posted but I have largely avoided following what has been going on. Nevertheless I was not holed up in a cave, and Ann Widdecombe‘s rant in the EU parliament got itself noticed. It was instantly filed in the back of my mind as something to enjoy upon my return.

This blog has periodically featured ballsy women from all parts of the world, principally because I like speakers who are bold enough to take on all comers. Ann Widdecombe surely has a claim to the title of doyenne.

Two minutes and eight seconds of rant seems suitably brief in current temperatures, and most people could blast away inconsequentially for that duration. But to insert seven meaty details into it takes skill.

  • She noted that she represented the biggest party there,
  • She scorned the absurdity of the “election” of EU officials
  • She pointed out that this parody of democracy betrayed all countries represented
  • She spoke of the historic pattern of oppressed people rising up against oppressors
  • She slipped in a dig at the leaked video of EU pound-store bigwigs congratulating themselves on maintaining the UK as a “colony”
  • She attacked a new ruling concerning fishing net meshes
  • She declared the UK’s departure in three languages.

I’ve seen twenty-minute speeches that said less. The EU probably can’t wait to be rid her, and that’s the whole point.