A C Grayling: wonderful on his subject.

What is a philosopher? The Ancients used the word as a catch-all for mathematicians or scientists, but what does it mean now? Leaving aside that someone once told me that she’d like to be a philosopher so that she could spend hours in the bath, working, or the great Tom Lehrer’s observation that they go round giving helpful advice to those who are happier than they are, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition can be paraphrased as one who studies wisdom. A loose definition, to be sure.

Ay, there’s the rub! That definition’s looseness puts it perilously close to ‘Intellectual’, a class of person whose ideas can do, and have done, untold damage to societies. One reason is that too often they pay no price when events prove them wrong. Thomas Sowell published a book on the subject in which, among other things, he observed that usually these people have an exalted and deserved reputation in a particular narrow speciality; but once they step outside its confines they can neglect to apply equivalent rigour to their other opinions. This makes those opinions about as valid as those of any stranger in a pub, but held by Society to be Holy Writ, having been uttered by a known genius.

His examples include Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, G.B.Shaw, J.M.Keynes. We can easily add Richard Wagner, or more recently Paul Nurse or Brian Cox.

A.C.Grayling (philosopher) recently swam into my ken when a series of his hilariously foolish Tweets on the subject of Brexit were being gleefully retweeted, much as I imagine teachers communally giggle over their pupils’ howlers in the staff room. I was interested to know whether he followed the above pattern. What was he like on the speciality that had forged his reputation? I went and found a speech.

This is at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held annually at Sydney Opera House. He is speaking about Bad Education which, as epistemology is one of his specialities, is straight down the centre of his disciplinary fairway. He is introduced by Julia Baird, and begins speaking at 2:15.

He is really very good indeed. This is shot throughout from the hip. There appear to be autocue screens facing upstage from where footlights would be, but their image is stationary. His diction is lovely: crystal clear without being over-enunciated. He structures his material very well, though if I were super-picky I might suggest making chapter divisions slightly clearer. He has an excellent reservoir of ‘Nice-to-Know’ material with which he tactically leavens the flow of ‘Need-to-Know’ information that pours out of him – I’m referring to humorous anecdotes and so on. Either through research, instinct or both he pitches the talk very precisely at the level of his audience, something we can tell by how well they respond to his use of humour for instance. Most importantly this talk is wonderfully uplifting. It is a delight to have experienced.

His use of English is excellent, but when he steps outside its confines he sort-of makes Thomas Sowell’s point. In quoting just two sentences in French he commits a pronunciation schoolboy howler. Just how picky can I be!

Well I can get pickier. I’m not sure he addressed his brief. ‘Bad Education’ is on the title of that video. He spoke about what education is, what it isn’t, etymology of the word, and so on. He spoke about what he feels education is for, and spent some time on the importance of humanities. All excellent, but where and wherefore the ‘Bad Education’ in the title?

Just asking.

Keir Starmer: competing with paint

On 13 December, 2016, Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech at Bloomberg in London. He is the Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union.

I read a Tweet from someone who, on the basis of a speech one day, described him as the most boring speaker he had ever heard. Naturally, though suspecting that partisan bias might have been at play, I had to investigate further. Sadly I have thus far failed to find that speech on line, but I have found this one. Why don’t you and I make up our own minds on the basis of what we find.

Well it isn’t about to set the world on fire, though I have known considerably worse. The main problem is that it has been scripted, and the scripting has hallmarks of the civil service. Let us look at some specifics.

He takes far too long to get going. From that opening Starmer stammer, which I am sure is not real but an affectation, up to 2:40 could beneficially be binned. It fails to contribute anything. He has in there a faintly humorous observation about his job-title. I have no problem with that, or the faint humour, but I do have a problem with his pause inviting audience response which doesn’t materialise. As throw-away humour it would have worked, but that pause made it lame.

At 2:23 he utters the words, “My speech today will be…” Did you get that? “Will be..” He is acknowledging that he hasn’t started yet, even though he is nearly two and a half minutes in. Two and a half minutes is actually an optimum length for an inconsequential opening (for technical reasons that I’ll spare you), but it needs to be a better two and a half minutes than that.

2:40 sees the beginning of a good epistrophe. As a bald opening that would have been powerful.

At 10:40 there’s a strong anaphora, and at 12:50 there’s another. There may have been more but the tediousness of the delivery makes it difficult to concentrate.

All these suggest professional speechwriting; and the even-handed balance of much of the message supports that view. The speech is relatively weasel-free for a politician.

I appreciate that balance, because not enough remainers have publicly made the point that if the referendum had gone the other way, and leavers had protested and obstructed as aggressively as remainers have, it would have been considered a scandal.

He is also right about the Cameron government’s disgraceful dereliction of duty that absolutely no plans were in place against a Brexit vote.

Yes, I am sure that professional speechwriter(s) were involved here, and it’s a quality job. But to be a good speaker, Starmer needs to learn how to dispense with his script and permit his personality to show. Reading causes him to scatter the speech with reading-stumbles, which are quite different from (and lamer than) speaking stumbles. Worst of all, reading makes his delivery tedious.

I became fascinated by the tangerine paint behind him.

Ian Dunt and one tiny issue

I came across a speech by Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, and I came very close to moving on quickly to look for a richer seam to mine. My problem, as far as this blog is concerned, was that he appeared to be speaking so competently that there was nothing on which I needed to comment. And then a tiny issue emerged.

He was delivering a talk on Civil Liberties and Data Linkage at a seminar organised by the International Journal of Social Research Methodology. I haven’t found the precise date of the seminar but the video was posted on line on 16 July 2015 and in the speech he refers to the tenth anniversary of 7/7 having just happened, so we are inside that 9-day window.

He’s shooting from the hip. Good. Everyone can do it, but very few know they can do it, and I have to work with them to show them how easy it is.

He knows he can do it, and is firing on all cylinders. He is eloquent, articulate, coherent and fluent. If this were a trainee of mine the thought through my head would be ‘Job Done’, and not just because of the shooting from the hip. He is also speaking with a great deal of expression, which is partly because he isn’t shackled to a bloody script but also symptomatic of being comfortable in the speaking environment – possessed of the right sort of inner calm. His diction is also excellent, crystal clear without being over-enunciated.

Nothing to see here, move along. And then …

At 3:51 he dries. There had been a nano-hesitation a couple of seconds earlier that hinted at a loss of thread, and now this is a complete dry. He has to go and find his notebook to remember what he was going to say next. Nothing very dramatic happens because his skill in this environment prevents him from mishandling the situation: he simply has a quick look at his notebook and resumes. End of problem.

Except it happens again at 6:45, and at 7:39 he pre-empts yet another occurrence by going and picking up the notebook and keeping it in his hand thereafter.

You may think that this speech might have been an exception caused by some circumstance preventing him from preparing as thoroughly as he would have liked. So did I, so I went back to YouTube to find another gig. Here it is. He delivers that every bit as well – but again he has repeatedly to stop and check what comes next, except this time it’s not a little notebook, but a laptop computer.

Ian Dunt as a speaker has one tiny issue. He doesn’t know about amnesia-proof structures, nor has he learnt the absurdly simple mind-mapping tricks that will never drop you into that sort of quandary. In all other respects he is a very good speaker so this may not bother him, but ironing out the wrinkle would be very simple.

Robert Spencer exits Plato’s cave

Young America’s Foundation hosted a talk on 18 March 2017 at the Reagan Ranch. The speaker was Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch.

I know little of Robert Spencer, other than the normal little bit of research I always undertake into a speaker, before subjecting them to critique on this blog. Thus it was that I learnt that he co-authored a book with Pamela Geller, whose speaking I critiqued last June. He also, I understand, shares with Geller the distinction of having been banned from the UK because of his inflammatory views – banned, that is, under the orders of the British Home Secretary at the time, one Theresa May.

A couple of weeks ago I covered someone else who had a reputation for being inflammatory and turned out to be quite the reverse. I thought I’d be really brave and try it again.

Spencer’s talk begins at 03:27 and ends at 32:27. If we assume a half-hour slot we are looking at a speech lasting a minute less than allotted, and delivered without a script. Regardless of all else I tip my hat to a speaker who knows what he’s doing.

A James Bond Film opening even! He begins with a summary of the Plato’s cave story, which though it may temporarily bemuse those who do not know it, leads beautifully into his message. I tip my hat again.

He then proceeds apparently to narrate the history of the modern day Islamist Jihad. I injected that word ‘apparently’ because not being a scholar of such matters I have no means of knowing the accuracy of what he says. Nevertheless, when claiming to quote from the Koran he always cites chapter and verse, and when quoting incidents always gives names, places and dates. In short, he shows his workings. When one side of an argument does that, and the other seeks to silence them (or worse!) it lends verisimilitude to the party of the first part.

This is twenty-nine minutes of highly authoritative speaking. And with the greatest respect to the British Home Office he never once incites his audience to violence. It is a speech that should be heard.

At 32:27 he throws open to questions. That should be heard too.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!

Charles Murray is here not inflammatory

In September 2016, at the Baugh Center Free Enterprise Forum at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Charles Murray was guest speaker.

Though I haven’t previously heard Murray speak, his name was familiar because of a highly publicised near-riot last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, when he and a Middlebury professor had to be evacuated from a hall where he was due to speak. About ten minutes internet research reveals all manner of accusations hurled at Murray. Principal among them is that he is a ‘white supremacist’ which, along with ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ means these days – especially in seats of learning – that his politics are at odds with those of his accuser.

Nevertheless I did expect some inflammatory stuff to come out of this lecture. Let’s see.

The avuncular, softly spoken, first minute is so bereft of phlogiston as to be almost a disappointment. He quickly mentions his book, Coming Apart, and I accordingly expect him to wade into an overt sales pitch. Again I am wrong, though he does refer to it fairly often. He also mentions the (then) upcoming presidential election, though stressing that it will feature in the lecture only obliquely.

The lecture is about cultural as distinct from economic inequality and, when in the first couple of minutes he refers to a statistic relating to income, he confesses that he hasn’t recently checked it. My interest quickens, because already it appears he is working with broad brush-strokes. Let me explain myself on this.

If this lecture covers roughly the same subject matter as his book, then he is doing what I often find myself helping business executives with. In their case they will be probably presenting some report, and in these cases I find myself dragging them away from the detail because the classic mistake is to try to précis that report. What they should be doing is trailing it. Think about a trailer for a movie. How much of the plot does it give you? Essentially none! It cherry picks a few sexy camera-shots to persuade you to see the movie. Thus the executive presenting a report should be doing nothing other than persuading his audience to read the report, and that usually means broad brush-strokes, glossing over detail and cherry picking sexy assertions. Now back to this lecture …

Murray is broad-brush-stroking his findings concerning the cultural polarisation of American society. His statistics here tend to be ‘ballpark’, though the overview is clear. We do not doubt that his book has precise figures and shows its workings. It’s very effective trailing, though it is revealing how the pace of the speech sags only when he gets too deeply into statistics for a brief section about two-thirds of the way through.

The message overlaps that of Tucker Carlson’s in my previous posting. It’s not the same, and it is presented very differently, but the two do support each other. He is describing the way that America has developed a class system, with an insular elite that views the rest with undisguised disdain. Like Carlson he doesn’t blame that elite, describing them as essentially nice folk following an understandable instinct to be around ‘people who get your jokes’; but the consequences of the alienation is socially and politically destructive. It is also fundamentally un-american.

For me this resonates more than merely my viewing another culture from a distance. There seems to be a similar alienation in Britain. It is rooted differently, but…

Perhaps I shouldn’t get started.

P.S. (April 17)  Charles Murray, in a tweet that links to this blog posting, tells us that this is the lecture he intended to give to Middlebury.  Those rioting students managed to avoid learning something so valuable as to contaminate their university experience.

Tucker Carlson, by the way

On 6 March in Washington DC, Tucker Carlson addressed the International Association of Firefighters.

Situated as I am on the east side of the Atlantic, my relationship with the US media can most charitably be described as sporadic. Nevertheless, in the eternal hunt for speeches I do spend a lot of time on YouTube. So it was that Tucker Carlson crept his way into my consciousness some months ago. He wasn’t making speeches, but he was interviewing many of the speakers into whose background I was delving for the purpose of this blog.

He was interviewing remarkably well, and had a refreshing approach to heavily adversarial, hostile, interviewees. Rather than show anger he would most often deploy one or both of two facial expressions –

  • Little boy puzzled
  • Little boy laughing

He was exploiting his chubbily boyish face, which is highly personable, and making it a hell of a weapon. More importantly the boy could play: he unerringly asked the questions I happened to want asked, couched in the most reasonable terms.

I had vaguely wondered how he would fare on a speaking platform, so when I saw a speech from him on line I pounced.

We don’t see the opening, but come in halfway through a sentence. I understand that people want videos that hit the ground running, but with my niche interest I want to see the opening. Public speaking is like flying an aeroplane inasmuch as the most tricky parts are the takeoff and landing. The rest is relatively easy.

We join Carlson already in the air and climbing. The first words we hear are “By the way” and they herald one seriously attention-grabbing sentence. From there it goes on up. This is a phenomenal speech!

He produces nail after nail and hits each one squarely on the head. I won’t tell you how; I won’t tell you why; you just need to watch it. It answers many questions.

He has a verbal mannerism. I tell my trainees never to worry about mannerisms because if their speech is interesting enough no-one will notice. It just happens to be my job, so I notice. He says “By the way”. I haven’t counted how many times he says it in this speech because I’d rather have a life, but it’s a lot. If I hadn’t mentioned it you wouldn’t have noticed because the speech is spell-binding. It’s refreshing as spring water, coming from someone in the government/media bubble.  Nail-head-nail-head all the way through.

By the way, one of the reasons “By the way” comes out so much is that he has a neat line in micro-digressions. It’s almost as if they supply the mortar between the bricks of his theme.

Another neat line is in self-deprecation – not in an overt simpering way but in tiny, easily missable, almost subliminal throw-away lines. At 13:30 he throws open to questions. See if you pick up the nano-self-deprecation in his final sentence, and ask yourself whether you would have done without my drawing your attention to it.

He’s a very good speaker, and this is a hell of a good speech. Nail-head-nail-head. I’d still have liked to have seen his takeoff, by the way.