Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.

Mariah Idrissi and her mystery ally

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

Today we hear from Mariah Idrissi, speaking for the motion.

She is clearly suffering from severe Hump. One of the fastest and most effective ways of combatting a hump and relaxing yourself is to relax your audience. There are many devices to achieve this, but they do not include the act of telling the audience you are nervous. Idrissi’s opening with a sing-song “No pressure!” is not a good idea. I know she is trying to make light of it, and maybe even get a laugh, but if I were advising her it would be out. She does get a sympathetic chuckle, but sympathy is not what she needs at this moment. She needs respect.

I find it significant that occasional shots of the audience, and other subtle indications, seem to tell us that she has one particular person in front of her who is willing her on, and perhaps even informally coached her and buoyed her up before the debate began. We will return to identify that person later.

Idrissi opens with criticising Katie Hopkins whose speech immediately precedes hers, and then turns to her own. She reads it.

There is no doubt that she worked very hard on this. As a piece of writing it is well constructed, and she has marshalled her arguments with care; but she is not delivering a speech she is a talking head.

In this respect and at this debate she is in good company, Toby Young was also a talking head, but he didn’t give the impression that his script was all that stood between him and drowning. You need only watch her reaction to attempts from audience members to interject to know how little she trusts herself to cope.

I feel very sorry for her. She is obviously very bright, has well-formed opinions – whether or not we agree with them – and should be able easily to command this audience rather than quail before it. I itch to help her.

So who did try to help her? Who is this mystery person that I believe was furiously trying telepathically to urge her on? When her speech closes the camera briefly dwells on one person warmly applauding and smiling her congratulations. You see it at 8:44.

It is the self-proclaimed “biggest bitch in Britain”, the one I called “the rudest person on the planet”. It is Katie Hopkins. She is proving that you can fundamentally disagree with someone without hating them, that we learn by listening to those with differing opinions.

That is why the free exchange of views and opinions is so important.

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 erstwhile Chief Justice of Australia, 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.