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.

Nimco Ali – professional

It was in The Eden Project, in Cornwall in England in June 2018, that today’s speech was delivered as part of a 5 x 15 session. These sessions consist of five speakers speaking for fifteen minutes each.

Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, campaigns tirelessly against FGM.

I am immediately impressed before I watch any of her speaking that, although an introduction is included, the video is just a smidgeon over 14 minutes in length. It is shamefully unusual for speakers at any event to finish so comfortably within their allotted time.

The YouTube posting does not tell us who does the introduction. Whoever it is has presence, is personable, but is strangely uncomfortable with the role. Barely a minute to speak, but reads it all, stumbles over it, and has lousy microphone technique. I feel sorry for her because she is clearly not at ease when she could so easily be.

Ali on the other hand shows herself supremely comfortable in front of an audience. She’s the type of speaker that shoots from the hip and relaxes the audience immediately, partly from her confident demeanour, and partly through meeting her subject head-on. “All I do is talk about vaginas.”

She tells us she is a survivor of FGM, but strengthens her ethos immeasurably by her apparent insouciance towards her experience. She displays no simpering victimhood, describing the operation as “stupid” and “weird”, while several faces in her audience register horror. That’s very effective, casting her as admirably objective.

Most importantly she speaks with her audience, addressing them almost as if across a coffee table. It’s a style of speaking that comes from the right mindset and it works. I am not in the least surprised by her success at getting politicians to listen, “I got David Cameron to say the word, clitoris. I also got £36m out of him to fund an African campaign.”

I will finish as I started on this speech. Along with everything I’ve said about her speaking ability she has speaking discipline. Her allotted time was 15 minutes. After her introduction she began at 01:24, she grabbed her audience, told them what she wanted them to hear, even getting a few laughs out of them, stopped, concluded with a 2-minute video and the whole thing lasted 14:02 minutes. That’s a level of professionalism that you seldom get even from professionals.

Jen Kuznicki hidden by a script

In early July 2018 Jen Kuznicki delivered a speech in Toledo, Ohio. If the banner on the wall behind her is a clue, she was addressing a branch of the Tea Party.

If you ask a Tea Party member what the party stands for they will tell you small government, low taxes, personal freedom. Ask a leftist what it stands for they will tell you that they’re nazis. You can decide for yourself whether that tells you more about the Tea Party or leftists.

We join this halfway through a sentence. Kuznicki is telling the audience a little about herself. Rhetoricians call this Ethos. What to me is important is that she is talking to the audience. It may be a little halting, but so what? Her own real personality is coming through here, together with her personal charm. (I know she has plenty – I follow her on Twitter.)

But she doesn’t think she’s started  yet.

At 0:39 she turns to her script, and now she is no longer speaking to the audience. Her mouth is relaying to the audience what she wrote earlier. She is now just a talking head, and great swathes of her personal charm have gone AWOL.

She’s a journalist, and a good one. What she’s reading is good stuff, and she’s reading it pretty well. But it isn’t her! Her personality is hidden behind that bloody script.

She doesn’t need that script. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t. With just a little tweaking to the structure, and a little guidance she could come out from behind that script, even from behind that lectern, and really engage that audience shooting from the hip.

When the video cuts away at the end, we hear the beginnings of good applause. In her own account on her website she tells us that she received a standing ovation. I believe it: as I said, this is good stuff. But it could so easily have been immeasurably better if Jen Kuznicki, as distinct from a talking head representing Jen Kuznicki, had done the delivery.

I’m not angling for business: I’m seventy-one and trying to slow down. But if she contacts me through this blog I’ll happily arrange to give her a free hour’s Skype consultation to set her on her way to scriptless freedom. Just as her writing needs to be read, her voice – her voice – needs to be heard.

 

Mosab Yousef: a disrupter

The scene is a United Nations Human Rights Council Debate on 25 September, 2017. The council is filled overwhelmingly with people harbouring a shared obsession. Accordingly here they can spew out poison, couched in diplomacy-speak, safe in the belief that no one will gainsay them. Let us watch.

The difficulty with that video is in trying to concentrate on what the lone voice says while being gloriously distracted by the reactions of those who have hitherto been enjoying their cosy hate-fest. We heard that his presence at this debate is to represent United Nations Watch whom we have followed in the previous two postings here and here, and whose terms of reference are to do precisely what this man is doing. But who is he? His name is Mosab Yousef, and he can answer the rest for himself. He is speaking at a multicultural summit in Garden City, Kansas in 2016.

This video appears to have been topped’n’tailed so losing the opening and closing. Or Yousef has deployed a beautiful bald opening. Either way the student of public speaking can see how powerful a bald opening can be. “The mystery of life…” is a fabulous way to start.

It has also been edited: you can easily identify many, unsettlingly many,  edit points. I like to believe that this was not to censor him but to shorten the video a little.

I love the quiet, pensive, almost hesitant way he is delivering. This decorum conveys a level of sincerity that is seldom seen so transparently on a speaking platform.

The speech appears to be essentially autobiographical, pure ethos, and perhaps the editing was intended to restrict the video to that. For me it certainly fleshes out the image of the character who so rudely disrupted the well-manicured diplomats at the UN.

Nevertheless there is also a crucial, kernel, takeaway message between 4:18 and 6:12. If enough people reflected upon this it could become far more disruptive than his contribution to that UN debate.

Greg Lukianoff and the 1st Amendment

I have lost count of the number times I have covered on this blog speeches extolling the virtues, or condemning the restriction, of free speech. I can though remember the first time: it was in November 2012 and a Christopher Hitchens speech which he had delivered at a debate in 2006. Here we are, twelve years after that debate, and free speech is under worse attack than ever.

My interest in the subject must be obvious. My occupation is my obsession and based on communication. In my opinion anyone who strives to curtail communication is either imbecilic or possessed of dangerously questionable motives; and it seems that most of western academia, officialdom, and too many of our political representatives can be thus categorised. It’s worse than depressing: it’s frightening.

I hate the word ‘hate’ when it is used as a legal adjective.

Here we see a lecture on Free Speech delivered by Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE – The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It was at Williams College, Massachusetts, in April 2014.

Check out the size of the audience!

As part of his opening ethos Lukianoff amusingly introduces himself as a specialist 1st Amendment lawyer. We in Britain do not have a 1st Amendment: we do not even have a written Constitution to amend. What this lecture tells us is that even with full constitutional backup to protect it the USA has free speech problems pretty much as severe as ours.

Generally I would disapprove of his slides carrying so much verbiage, because of the risk that the speaker can find himself in competition with himself. But when he sticks important, historic, Supreme Court rulings on the screen, then to quote key passages from them I have to say I think it works by dint of the weight of the passages.

I find him a joy to listen to because he lays out his arguments with stunning clarity, but then he’s a lawyer. In half an hour I find the whole free speech thing more cogently expressed than I have heard elsewhere.

He actually goes on for more than half an hour, finishing and inviting questions at 34:30, but the last four minutes are specifically aimed at American students and the benefits of FIRE membership. Then it’s questions.

This speech was four years ago, since when these matters have appeared to have got worse even though the official political culture, if not the culture of  academe, has turned through 180 degrees. For my own private interest I must go and find what he is saying now.

Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!

 

Damian Green not a copper’s nark

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Britannic Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate.

I have already examined speeches by Anthony Stansfeld, Graham Stringer MP, and David Davis MP. Finally, today, we look at the speech in opposition from Damian Green MP.

Damian Green used to be a TV presenter. Before that he was in radio. For nine years he was a broadcast journalist, and for twice as long as that he has been a Member of Parliament. Many might assume that this would guarantee his public speaking skill. My experience shows that this is not necessarily so. For one thing broadcasters don’t see their audience, and for another Members of Parliament do too much of their speaking in the chamber where everything is rather stylized. Let’s see.

This is an amusing opening. The audience enjoys it enough not only to laugh, but one person tries to applaud.

He has at his disposal various pieces of weighty ethos, not least his spell as Police Minister, but he mentions that only obliquely. Instead he brings up his arrest in 2008, on suspicion of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”. While he was in opposition, a junior civil servant had leaked him documents that seemed to indicate failings on behalf of the government’s handling of Home Affairs. The arrest was highly controversial, seemed to be entirely political, and he was released without charge after a few hours questioning. Politicians on all sides were intensely critical of the actions of the police. This story might seem at first sight almost to be reverse ethos, till Green points out that no one will now accuse him of being a ‘copper’s nark’.

The speech is well delivered. Like David Davis he looks at his papers very sparingly and then usually to get a name right in some story. After the comedy of the first minute, this is coldly focused purely on the arguments he is promoting.

He tells the notorious story of the cold-blooded gunning down of two unarmed police officers, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, just two days into his spell as Police Minister. He is illustrating the deadly hazards of being a police officer, but surely this is a straw man argument. Everyone knows that the police have a dangerous job, but how can this excuse corruption like the manufacture of evidence or the taking of bribes? Being the victim of persecution does not paint you virtuous: how you react to it might, but the police too often not reacting properly is the other side’s case.

In terms of his debating strategy he seems too eager to chase down these blind alleys. He does it right up to his parting shot, “…recognize that the police out there are doing a tough job, and that most of them do it really well” That’s virtually saying, “…only some of them are villains”. Or try this, “It’s really difficult being a brain surgeon, and most of them won’t kill you.”

I haven’t been able to find out which side won the debate, but on the basis of the speeches I’ve heard I know which way I’d have voted.