Stefan Molyneux is sincere

I had seen and heard him in interviews, and had been impressed by his fluency, vocal use, etc., so I went looking for speeches by Stefan Molyneux.

I found two, both recent, and requiring very different deliveries. The first was in Melbourne, Australia, the video having been posted on YouTube in August 2018. The audience response and references to a protest outside suggest that this is in a university.

A shrinking violet he ain’t. I like the way he bursts into his opening: it’s appropriate for the environment. He’s not using paper of course, and that marks him out as a proper speaker, therefore worth watching closely.

I don’t want to spend too much time or space on this speech, with another still to examine, particularly as he has gone on record as thinking that the other is the best he has made. But before we move on let us admire his technical ability. I can find no flaw with the way he uses his voice. His resonance and enunciation are top flight; also he moves around the space very well so I am not surprised to learn that he studied acting. But …

There are two spotlights upstage, sticking upwards from the floor and rocking very slowly. Their beams intersect sometimes in line with the top of the cyclorama, framing the speaker with an inverted V and sometimes intersecting just above his head showing an X. Why is that even remotely significant? Because I noticed.

All right I concede that I have an obvious interest in how such things are presented, but still if he’s doing his job as well as he wants he should absorb everyone watching and not be upstaged by bloody lights. The casual, jokey nature of the talk is appropriate with this audience, but he is rambling a little too much, indulging in irrelevant histrionics, not keeping his narrative tight enough and actually allowing it to get a little flabby in places. Let’s now see how he did, less than three weeks ago, on 31 January at the EU Parliament.

The video kicks off with a financial appeal to camera. Fair enough: he has to eat, his work requires a lot of expense, and he has chosen the freedom of independence.

This speech, as expected in view of the venue, is far tighter. Many, most, indeed nearly all, would meet that need for discipline by equipping themselves with a script. I warmly applaud his empty lectern, and he’s right: it will be a better speech for being shot from the hip.

I would be prepared to bet that he has not learnt this, but is speaking spontaneously following a carefully structured route. I also reckon it’s modular: he has strung together modules which he has used many times and refined, and they form the backbone. He has a penchant for long lists — sometimes asyndeton sometimes polysyndeton, never apparently a mixture. A characteristic like that, which would be spotted only by sad idiots like me, is the sort of thing that emerges in modular speeches that have never been written down.

Let’s not beat about the bush: Molyneux is outstandingly good. A regular reader will know that the better they are the pickier I get…

He is probably as near perfect a speaker as I have seen (and I’ve seen a fair few). Why is that picky? Because, as I have observed before in this blog — though previously when people were striving for it, never before when they had reached it — perfection, being an absence of flaws, can be boring. Excellence, which flaunts its idiosyncrasies, brings excitement. Molyneux has ironed out his flaws and hidden his idiosyncrasies, and now injects excitement via performance. Here we have a simply brilliant piece of speaking, but are we watching the real person or a superbly sculpted persona? I think the latter, and that disappoints me — though only slightly.

Only slightly, because persona or not he’s completely sincere. He must be sincere: no one in today’s society synthesises the appallingly unfashionable and personally unprofitable philosophy he promotes, unless he’s sincere or insane. Some might try to persuade you that people like he are secretly funded by an evil plutocracy, but I don’t believe that, nor do they, and nor should you. He’s sincere.

Roger Scruton tragically paper-bound

I wonder whether it was it by happenstance or design that late last year the Oxford Union hosted two severely contrasting talks by philosophers.

The contrast is dramatic. On the one hand there was Slavoj Žižek, at whom we looked a couple of weeks ago, and on the other there was Sir Roger Scruton. The former an apparently neurotic firebrand of Eastern European peasant stock, the latter an apparently patrician-born, establishment pedagogue.

In fact both impressions are false. Žižek is the son of a middle-class civil servant. As for Scruton, he typifies a dilemma I often have on this blog. When I affix a link to his name, which I aways do, should it be to his own website where he tells the world what he is now, or to Wikipedia where others have described his life thus far? In Scruton’s case the difference in accounts is considerable, so I have supplied both links in consecutive paragraphs.

I have watched and heard several interviews with Sir Roger, and he represents himself very well. His arguments are clear, well-reasoned, and fluent. This is hardly surprising, because he knows his subject and is more than able to defend his adopted positions. You can see what I mean when he turns to Q&A at 39:50.

A speech is merely answers supplied to a sequence of imagined questions; so at the very most all he needs on that lectern is a bulleted list of questions, certainly not a script. If he had operated that way his delivery would have benefitted from spontaneity, and been not one jot less rich in language. His interviews prove that last point.

I would prefer him not to have even that, because speaking entirely without notes forces you into structuring your material in a fashion that is more disciplined than even an academic lecture. There are a few mind-wandering moments in this talk, and the camera catches at least one audience member’s mind absorbed in something else. This forty minutes could easily have tightened to little more than thirty and benefited thereby.

We with this video can pause, rewind, rewatch, etc., and it is worth doing for all the reasons that make his interviews so good. It’s just a pity both that his audience there in that hall could not do that or that they sometimes needed to, because what Sir Roger has to say needs to be heard and understood.

Dr Oliver Robinson again

Yes, he been on twice before, here and here. And, in case you haven’t picked up my personal interest, he’s my nephew. I have been following with some interest his progress as a speaker, and am impressed by this latest leap. I haven’t coached him: he read my previous critiques here, and we’ve discussed concepts, but essentially it’s his own work.

Since he previously appeared here we have lunched together; but there were far more interesting things than speaking to discuss, mainly his latest book called Paths Between Head and Heart, which I had read and which he is promoting in this speech at Watkins Books.

The link to the video arrived in an email from him, declaring that he was speaking without script or notes. Like a wasp to beer I was drawn in.

When I first started coaching people in public speaking it was still de rigueur to stand in a power-pose, and orate. Bit by bit, in the decades since, the fashion has moved to what I term ‘conversational sincerity’. I much prefer it, would love to claim that I had influenced it, but actually it was going to happen anyway.

Here we find Olly, paperless as promised, in ‘conversational sincerity’ mode, and taking flight in the process. The freshness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm for his message is infectious. True his shooting from the hip makes it a little rough around the edges here and there, but the net gain in audience engagement obliterates that cost. The more he speaks without paper the smoother it will get, but in the meantime who cares anyway?

For about a quarter of an hour his structure is chronological, as he traces the history of scientific enlightenment and spirituality. (Who would have thought that the 1680s, the decade of the Glorious Revolution, was also so significant in this story?) Chronology is an easy structure to work, but by being linear, a single dimension, it can cause a speaker to lose thread. A simple aid is to introduce cross-structures that intersect this timeline, but that’s a detail.

At 18:00 he begins talking about expansion of mind and, suggesting an elastic band as a metaphor, he makes the point that to expand anything you need to pull its extremities in opposite directions. Thus any expansion involves tension between opposites. (What a devastating argument against ‘Safe Spaces’ in universities!)

This introduces a chart that he has in his book, a wheel containing opposites facing each other across its centre. He produces a printout of that chart; and this is his visual, the only one. Had he been in a lecture room it would have been a slide, but he manages perfectly well holding it up in front of himself. The rest of his talk is essentially exploring briefly some of the dialectics in the book between those opposites.

I was slightly unsettled in the talk by the frequent cross-fades betraying edit points. The edits were very skilfully done, with seamless joins in the audio, but what was edited out? Interjections or questions from the audience which threatened to lengthen the video unnecessarily? Who knows?

I found it unsettling also when he described a discussion he had with his father, as it took me a second to realise that the other party to that dialogue was my own brother.

It is an excellent and stimulating talk which ends a few seconds after 35:00. The rest is Q&A.

On Amazon the book has seven reviews, one by me, all positive and 5-stars throughout.