Berlinski and Hitchens: amazing debate

The late Christopher Hitchens is everywhere on YouTube, ferociously debating those who espouse religions of all types, and in my previous post I said that I avoided watching. This is true, but more because of the sterility of argument rather than a criticism of Hitchens. My having covered in depth the Oxford Union God Debate, it seemed to me that it always seemed to culminate in a Monty Python argument, with each side automatically gainsaying the other. And again this is not necessarily a reflection on the antagonists, but on the matter in hand. There is no proof, only faith. Therefore these debates are merely confrontations between the fundamentalist followers of two beliefs. Atheists might deny theirs is a belief, asserting that it is an absence of belief, but this is wrong. They believe fundamentally that there is no God.

I have little patience with fundamentalism of any sort. Peter Ustinov observed that “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.” It is in the exploration of doubt that I believe the search for truth lies. For that reason, I am afraid my knee-jerk instinct when meeting someone’s conviction is to challenge it.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  W.B.Yeats

Having long given up wasting time watching these debates, I came across David Berlinski being interviewed on Uncommon Knowledge. As a professor of mathematics seeking after truth, he likewise was challenging universally-held convictions wherever he found them. From Darwinism to global warming, he was delightfully dismissive of the paucity of scientific rigour applied; and what I found particularly appealing was that his standpoint was never that of one harbouring opposing beliefs but one with the humility to admit that he did not know the truth but was uneasy with the reasoning of those who claimed they did.

You may imagine therefore the excitement with which I came across this debate.

Hitchens was a very powerful debater, extraordinarily well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, more coherent than most, and apparently rock-solid in his atheistic conviction. Berlinski is every bit as well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, and more coherent than most. I have seen less evidence of his having done much debating, but his most potent weapon is his doubt: he offers no conviction for Hitchens to attack. Let battle commence…

Almost immediately Berlinski reveals his strength. With the proposition’s being Atheism Poisons Everything, there is no need for Berlinski to defend religion. We all know that huge amounts of evil have been done in the name of religion, but that fact leaves not a scratch on the proposition.

Hard on those heels he brings a smile to my face with an offering from Dr Johnson. The quotation can be paraphrased as, “the science is settled: the debate is over”.  Look back to my third paragraph to see how puckish this is.

Set-piece routines are paradoxically the bits of speeches that most often seem to fail. Berlinski’s button schtick at the end of his opening speech was doing fine till the final bit direct to Hitchens which was lame. Significantly that last was omitted from the transcript of this debate to be found here.

Hitchens knows full well that Berlinski has shown that attacking religion is pointless against this proposition, but what else is he to do? Without that, he is left with trying to prove a negative – a notoriously impossible task. He duly attacks religion and the evils done in its name; he rehashes arguments as to the impossibility of a God; he goes down all the familiar routes; but he is not addressing the unaddressable proposition.

Why did Hitchens agree to this debate without insisting on editing the wording of the proposition? Was his proselytising zeal so great that he could not resist the challenge?  The answer may possibly be found in his closing argument which is very good indeed and goes quite a long way to solving the insoluble problem in the previous paragraph.

Among other arguments he asserts at around 43:45 that the ‘little faction” of atheists with whom he is identified “is adamant for doubt”. Names that he has bandied elsewhere, and therefore presumably also belonging to this little faction, include people like Dawkins and Dennett. He maintains that they all explore uncertainty. In short he is seeking to exculpate them from fundamentalism. It’s a nice try, and it can be seen to be the only argument open to him, but I think he is misguided. People who plaster buses with posters containing puerile atheistic slogans are beyond doubt.

It’s time for me to shut up, and for you to enjoy the debate. I commend it.

David Berlinski – a class act

On 7 September 2010, at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in Alabama, the Fixed Point Foundation hosted a debate between Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski. The motion was Atheism Poisons Everything.

A very effective way of using up a huge amount of time would be to tour YouTube, watching all the debates involving Christopher Hitchens on the subject of religion. So I don’t. But having recently watched David Berlinski on Uncommon Knowledge, being interviewed by my part-namesake, the excellent Peter Robinson, I was intrigued enough to make this an exception. By the way, I commend Uncommon Knowledge.

Larry Taunton occupies a few seconds less than 4 minutes introducing the debate, and Berlinski begins. Immediately a weird thing happens: a woman in the audience suddenly cackles in an insane fashion. Apart from fixing her with a startled and disapproving stare and pausing long enough for it to matter, Berlinski says nothing.

I like  this man. I like his erudition being very evident but somehow understated. I like the rather patrician image with which he cloaks himself, exhibiting suave condescension mixed with an air of faintly dissolute urbanity. It is a strong contrast to Hitchens’ terrier-like attack, and I find it significant that Hitchens seems on this occasion to tone down his bellicosity and unconsciously seems slightly to mirror Berlinski’s style. This may be indicative of his being awe-struck and psychologically dominated. It’s certainly indicative of respect. You don’t see this happen with Hitchens very often.

With my rhetor hat on I like the way Berlinski speaks very quietly, yet expressively, and despite no discernible effort to do so makes every word heard. Though I don’t suppose he has read my book on that subject, he follows all its strictures.

He uses no notes, and I think he is shooting from the hip. You may claim there is no distinction; but reciting a learnt script is not shooting from the hip. He has a turn of phrase burnished by much good reading, and I love the way he throws away his description of Robespierre as being ‘rabid as a bat’.

My only slight concern is that he is much more nervous than he needs to be.  You may notice that it is not till the rebuttals later that his shoulders descend to a relaxed level.

This opening address runs from 3:55 till 15:16.

As I remarked earlier Christopher Hitchens was a serial debater on religion; and he fairly regularly made mincemeat of his opponents – even (whisper it) his brother Peter; but pitting him against Berlinski was an inspired match. This debate was as fascinating as the Oxford Union God debate should have been but wasn’t. Forgive my veering towards cliché, but it generated more light than heat.

I want to examine the debate in depth, and more fully than as a footnote to Berlinski’s opening speech.  I shall return to it in my next posting.

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.



Blair – bad, not so bad, and splashing.

Today I am once again on the subject of talking heads . It’s a term I use rather disparagingly to refer to the speaker being merely a voice-conduit for a piece of literature. When a speaker just reads a script it will usually be a huge turn-off for the audience, and the ‘better’ the writing the bigger the turn-off.

You may wrestle with that, so let me explain. I put the word ‘better’ in quotes, because good literature has a tendency towards formality. Speaking, because of today’s fashion for a more casual style of conversational sincerity, tends the opposite way so better writing makes for worse speaking. On those occasions when a script becomes necessary we have to write it with speaking in mind. Remove its tie: loosen its collar!  There are guidelines for this which I don’t usually cover in a course unless specifically requested, but I did in the book.

I bet your experiences as an audience member confirm this; and if you have ever read transcripts of great speeches you have probably met with the converse – great speeches don’t make good reading. You needed to be there. Lord Roseberry said in his Life of Pitt,

“Few speeches which have produced an electrical effect on an audience can bear the colourless photography of a printed record.”

Let’s look at a debate held in Canada between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether Religion is a Force for Good. To watch the whole thing you would need an hour and three quarters, but I should like to refer you merely to small sections.

Blair’s first offering goes from 14:00 – 21:02. It is scripted and, though Blair handles a script better than most, he is being a Talking Head – even down to the occasional piece of smart-alec writing that just doesn’t work in this medium!  Later he and Hitchens each have two four-minute rebuttal slots, and those of Blair can be found here –

  • 26:40 – 31:13
  • 36:05 – 40:13.

Now he is shooting from the hip, and the improvement in delivery is huge.

I shan’t comment on what either of them is saying, because that’s not my brief today. Blair in his rebuttals may be reverting to the old touchy-feely, schmaltzy stuff that we remember so vividly from him; but even in the guise that so many find emetic he relates much better with his audience when unhampered by paper.

That’s why I don’t like Talking Heads: that’s why I metaphorically tear paper from out of the hands of trainees: that’s why I show trainees how to structure and prepare their material so that they can securely ‘shoot it from the hip’: that’s why I go to lengths to show them that they are – often to their amazement – perfectly able to do it: that’s why I wrote the book . This paragraph was anaphora, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I am also today returning to the subject of microphone problems. Usually I am castigating the speaker for bad microphone technique, but Blair in that recording was blameless. When a speaker is working so hard on what emerges from his mouth, it enrages me when the technology fails to deliver it properly. Blair in that debate had a lapel microphone attached to his shirt. With those things you are entirely in the hands of the sound engineer. The sound system disgracefully distorted and ‘splashed’ all his sibilant consonants. That sound engineer needs to take up an occupation better suited to his talents. Like sweeping streets.

[added in 2017: the video embedded in this posting was since taken off line and replaced with one that appears to have had its sound quality cleaned up.]

Rudyard Griffiths, the chairman of that debate was wearing an earset mic – one of those things that they try to blend in with your skin-colour. If you stick a ball of foam over the end – and they usually do – the colouring doesn’t hide it and it looks as if you have a boil on your cheek. The advantage of earsets is that if you turn your head you don’t go off-mic. They don’t need that foam-ball. It is theoretically there as a wind-break to lessen popping, but if you fit the thing right you won’t get popping and if you fit it wrong that foam won’t save you. He’s slightly sibilant, but he’s not splashing like Blair.

Two paragraphs ago it may not have escaped your notice that I suggested rather forcibly that the sound engineer was incompetent. There may be another less charitable explanation for Blair’s terrible sound quality. I have sometimes idly speculated that most audience members might not even notice these aberrations, because their brains filter them out.   Just for a moment suppose that this little theory is right, and that most listeners just vaguely register is that one speaker makes for more pleasant listening.

Listen closely to Hitchens.  Do you hear the same scale of sound problems from him? This was a debate on a matter which polarizes people.  If the organisation staging the debate favoured one side of the argument, what a sneaky way that could be of subliminally handicapping the opposition. Am I being too fanciful?  Perhaps, but it’s a thought.

As a matter of interest, who was it that staged this debate in Canada?  There may be a clue in the introduction spoken by Rudyard Griffiths.