Peter Hitchens lays into his opponents

The third speaker in favour of the motion This House Believes in God in the debate at the Oxford Union, was Peter Hitchens. He hates this argument – he told us so.

“I hate this argument!” That’s his high-impact opener. And he stokes the impact by explaining that he has to defend a philosophy of love while kicking his opponents in the crotch. Did he assume that humour centred around genitalia would be a sure-fire laugh with an undergraduate audience?  Probably, and he was right.

That is not the end of the beginning. He now appears to get seriously offensive about his opponents but defuses it all with a twist that I won’t spoil for you. Again he is rewarded with a laugh. The twist has a half-hidden facet that partly re-establishes the offence, though the nature of the laugh suggests that most of the audience did not notice.

The endorsement from the market (the laugh) reassured me, because I had this down as a good opening. It was brave, because it was enacted through his (barely visible) hump and only a slight error in timing would have harpooned it; but he knows what he is doing. In his newspaper column and blog he carefully maintains a reputation for bellicosity, and this sort of knock-about insult is his meat and drink. On the quality of argument so far offered by his opponents he pours a measure of scorn that teeters on the lip of argumentum ad hominem, but uses schoolboy language to neutralise the sting. It’s clever.

When he reaches the serious stuff, introduced with a reading from the book of Job, he makes the point that no one can prove, or otherwise, the existence of God; it is a matter of belief, and belief is a matter of opinion, and opinion is a matter of choice. He chooses to believe in a concept that maintains order in what otherwise is chaos. In the process of delivering this reasoning he gets bellicose again with his opponents, casting serious aspersions on their motives for choosing to believe what they do.

At times in the process he does slip into ad hominem, and again he finds a way to pull the sting. Someone in the audience wants to ask a question, and he declines to surrender the floor, “No, not just now. I’m about to finish, and I’ve decided to give them a Christian kicking.” It’s a beautifully oxymoronic ad lib and the audience loves it.  Speaking of ad lib, he shoots the entire speech from the hip. The only time he turns to paper is for the biblical reading. This guy is good.

Nevertheless I need to say something about his enunciation. Let us return to his opening sentence – “I hate this argument.” The word ‘argument’, after its first syllable, disappears. Hitchens commits a diction error that goes like this…

All multi-syllable words have a prosodic rhythm that stresses some syllables and relegates others to relative insignificance. Face to face it doesn’t matter, because we hear enough to understand. In a large hall we instinctively raise the volume on the important syllables, but being used to leaving the other ones to fend for themselves we forget them and they easily get lost. We need to bring up the relative volume on all syllables. I have a short chapter on this in The Face & Tripod, and cover it in greater depth in Every Word HeardIt is a widespread error that Hitchens commits often, and is very easily fixed.

Speaking of chapters in The Face & Tripod, did you notice the degree to which he kept fiddling with that pen?  If not he may have proved the point with which I conclude the chapter on Mannerisms.

If I may doff my rhetor hat, I’d like to say that what I found particularly appealing about this speech was that he returned to the motion. The word ‘existence’ was crucially not in the motion though too many speakers treated it is if it had been, subtly changing (and infantilising) the nature of the argument. “I believe in God” does not mean the same as “I believe in the existence of God”.

There are on YouTube other debates about God. One such between Peter Hitchens and his late brother, Christopher, is good stuff! Neither takes prisoners. I shall have to address it one day on this blog.

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