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.

Rowan Atkinson pleads for insults

All over the western world at present there is a battle for and against Free Speech. In 2012 there was launched in Britain a movement to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, the section dealing with ‘Insulting Speech’, and the Campaign chose a splendid slogan “Feel Free to Insult Me“.

One of their celebrity supporters was actor Rowan Atkinson, who delivered a speech at a parliamentary reception on 16 October 2012.

Oh no, he’s reading it!

It’s a disappointment that he of all people would stifle some of the impact of his delivery this way, but to me it’s not a complete surprise. Actors spend their working lives speaking without reference to paper, and they also spend their working lives pretending to be someone else. Here Atkinson is being himself in public, something that many actors find uncomfortable – shyness is surprisingly widespread in the profession. Blackadder or Mr Bean could shoot this from the hip without any trouble, so could anyone if they knew how, so could Rowan Atkinson but here he prefers not to. The rareness of his giving broadcast interviews suggests that he is shy, it is well known that he battles against stammering, and it would not surprise me if his script here is a weapon in that battle.

We can at least expect him to read very well. He does of course.

He quotes from the brilliant Constable Savage sketch in Not the Nine o’Clock News, and this is almost as funny as the sketch itself, because it is the same voice speaking the lines – and the same brilliant timing. To those of us old enough to remember, this is a predictable inclusion in the speech but no less welcome for that.

At 7:15 he expresses the hope that this campaign will begin a process that will “slowly rewind the creeping culture of censoriousness”.

The speech was delivered five and a half years ago and it was a nice and noble try. However that creeping culture has now become an intemperate gallop.

Peter Hitchens does not laugh

In early summer 2017 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space.  The Union had the sense to defeat it. On 20 June I covered one of the opposition speeches. It was from Peter Tatchell, whose performance I found disappointing. Perhaps that was one reason I didn’t bother with any more of the debate at the time.

Another is that I no longer critique speeches by students. I have done, and have regretted it. From my position of advanced years I cannot satisfactorily take any public position on either the speech or its delivery. If I praise it I can be considered patronising: if I condemn it I am being unkind.

Then recently my eye was caught by a clickbait caption, Peter Hitchens laughing at Loony Students. It turned out to be the final opposition speech from that same debate.

That is a magnificent opening, largely for what it doesn’t stoop to say. The device is a variety of what I call tactical omission. We watching, with the data immediately available to us can have no idea what he means; and even the audience in the hall is left thinking back to the previous speech to try to work it out. Meanwhile in an irreducible minimum of words he has been brutally scathing. I now know to what he refers, though I had to submit to some ghastly research. I shall say no more (see my second paragraph above), except to confirm that Hitchens is right.

The clickbait caption is a lie, and I should have known. Clickbait usually is. Peter Hitchens has been known to laugh, but not in my experience at his opponents in a serious debate. He may give them a good kicking, eat them, chew them over, spit them out, but not laugh. He is unusually courteous in his destruction, much more so than his late brother.

He shoots this speech from the hip, looking at his papers only for the purpose of reading quotations, and is able to do so because of how well he has structured it. It makes it easy for him to know where he is at any moment, and therefore where he then has to go. The byproduct of this, and even more important, is that the speech and its message are easily followed and digested. Given that this last is the prime imperative for any speech you might understand why I ceaselessly castigate those who mistakenly believe that they cannot deliver a speech without burying their face in a script.

Hitchens definitely doesn’t laugh.

 

 

Maryam Namazie twice

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know how to critique a speaker or a speech.

Recently when I was preparing this previous blog posting I heard Maryam Namazie described as the bravest person he knows. I immediately went looking for her, and found this.

Here we see Namazie trying to deliver a speech, and being thwarted by the boorish bullying of Muslims (presumably) in her audience. In an hilariously graphic example of transference, one of those conscientiously trying to intimidate her is doing so by loudly complaining that he is being intimidated.

This sort of crybully behaviour is becoming widespread wherever we look, and for one very good reason: it works. We as a society not only suffer it, we seem to encourage it. Pressure groups of various persuasions have learnt that if they play the victim card they can get away with all manner of misbehaviour.

Before my hair turned silver it was gold. When I was at school it was considered great sport to declare that gingers had ferocious tempers, and then taunt one till he lost patience and proved you right. It never occurred to me to claim victimhood; but I should have worked out that if I invented a word – gingerophobia, – and accused people of being gingerist, I could get all sorts of preferential treatment that would excuse anything I did. Today, once you get that process rolling, you can reach a stage whereby the worse your behaviour the more privileged you become. ISIS agrees with me: look at the eagerness with which they have been trying to claim ‘credit’ for the activity of that murdering loony in Las Vegas.

Back to Maryam Namazie. Despairing of being able to critique that other example, I found this –

It’s good, it’s fascinating, it’s hugely informative and I commend it. I could fill several riveting paragraphs on how much better she could deliver it if she didn’t read it, but I find my concentration veering back to those louts in the previous video.

What idiocy by our own representatives means we are compelled to put up with this, in what we fondly believe to be a civilised country?

 

Mohammed AlKhadra and courage

On 23 July, during the Secular Conference 2017 in London, there was a Plenary Session on the theme of Out, Loud And Proud. On the Panel was Mohammed AlKhadra, Founder of the Jordanian Atheist Group. This video of his speech was uploaded to YouTube by John Smith, and you can see from the strap-line at the top of the still picture what he thought of it.

He speaks for nine and a half minutes, and when the rapturous applause dies down the Chairman of the session, Dan Barker, tells us that this was AlKhadra’s first speech.

He opens almost abruptly. He thanks and indicates Maryam Namazie, whom he describes as the bravest woman he knows, and then he plunges straight into his speech. It’s as near as makes no difference a bald opening, and I would bet money that the first few sentences are memorised. Whoever advised him did well (perhaps it was he himself). Some of my trainees take some persuading that a bald opening is a wonderful way of busting a hump till they try it, at which point a typical reaction is “that was so liberating”. I also recommend that they memorise the first minute or two, and thereafter simply follow a clear structure and shoot from the hip. That looks to me the precise path followed by this young man, and it works beautifully.

At the beginning he is smothered in symptoms of nerves which reduce markedly when he pays tribute, at 0:45, to Richard Dawkins in the audience. By the time he hits an elegant anaphora – “How do I know …” just after 1:30 – hump symptoms have almost evaporated and he is in the driving seat. I feel myself relaxing on his behalf.

The speech is shaming. You don’t have to agree with his atheism to be hugely impressed by the courage he has shown and is showing in being true to himself, and how it compares to the whining of the spoilt brats in the West with their imbecilic victim culture, Safe Spaces, No Platforming, and protestations that everything with which they have been told to disagree is Hate Speech which threatens the comfort they claim they ‘deserve’. Consider what he risks with his apostasy and his determination to speak freely, and you might find yourself thinking that the masked idiots of Antifa, wielding their clubs under an alarmingly familiar flag to deprive people of free speech, should have their bottoms smacked and be sent to bed without supper.

It shames the way western politics has polarised into pathetic but vicious tribal nonsense while real and dangerous issues confront us all.

It shames hate speech laws, every one of which should be instantly repealed. In the UK we have had for many years a law against incitement to violence. What more do we need? If we do not have freedom of speech we do not have freedom. The USA, to its eternal credit, has the First Amendment; and political movements, to their eternal shame, try to chip away at it.

It shames the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service which currently boasts 83% success rate against imagined ‘hate crimes’, while drawing a veil over 0% prosecutions for real and widespread FGM.

Like you, no doubt, I fear for this young man’s future. Perhaps his speech will cause us to reflect on how to make fundamental changes to the political climate that endangers him.

And us. And our children. And theirs.

 

Peter Tatchell: disappointingly insipid

The Oxford Union recently held a debate on the motion, This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space. Among the speakers for the opposition was Peter Tatchell.

I have not previously covered a speech by him, which comes as a surprise considering that he is not known for hiding his light under bushels. I was eager to amend the omission.

According to his opening, this is his thirtieth Oxford Union debate in three and a half decades. Then why isn’t he better?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to score cheap points. I admit that I am uneasy with many of his political views, but I defer to none in my admiration for the personal courage and principled perseverance that he has shown in the campaigns I have seen him fight over the decades. I genuinely expected this to be a forceful, and forcefully argued, speech.

But it isn’t: compared to what I expected it’s insipid, repetitious, flabby. The insipidness is in the way he is almost speaking down to his audience as if it had been drawn from a primary school. The repetitiousness is just that: he goes over and over virtually the same ground. And it’s flabby because he spends almost as much time apologising for perfectly sensible views as he does expressing them.

In the early minutes he is transfixed by the paper at his right elbow. It seems not to be a script so much as a comfort blanket; but why on earth should someone of his experience need a comfort blanket? What on earth is the matter with him?

He has spent more hours than you or I would care to count being grilled by the toughest the media has to offer, giving it back with interest. I guess I had expected him to light a fire under this gathering, and yet we get a bit of moist rag. Why?

Could it be that his communication skill is in the two-way traffic of hitting back at hard questioning, and he’s never got around to learning how to construct his own one-way traffic? No, it can’t be! Not if he’s been debating at the Oxford Union on average nearly once a year since the early eighties. I don’t understand it.

Was I simply expecting too much from someone like him? This performance would just about suffice for many speakers. I suppose.

It is a puzzlement.

Mind you: his side won the debate.

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.