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 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.

Geert Wilders is controversial

In 2017 the Heroes of Conscience Awards Dinner, held by the American Freedom Alliance had its keynote speech delivered by Dutch Member of Parliament, Geert Wilders. He was their Hero of Conscience honoree for 2009.

If the speaker introducing Wilders seems familiar, it could mean that you are a very assiduous reader of this blog, as Evan Sayet had a speech critiqued here in November 2017. It is sadly one of those postings that no longer have a speech to watch, as that speech has been taken off line. It is time I critiqued another of his speeches, but in the meantime I have doctored that posting a little by replacing the removed video with a five-minute cameo speech from Sayet. I wonder how long they will allow that one to remain.

Either Evan Sayet is very small or Geert Wilders is a giant. At the hand-over/handshake Sayet barely reaches Wilders’ shoulder. It’s not an important detail, just a passing observation.

As often happens on this blog, my first impression of Wilders is disappointment that he is reading his speech. I know that English is not his first language, indeed given that he lived for a time in Israel it may not be even his second language, but my having been married for a quarter of a century to a Dane I tend to take for granted that Northern Europeans speak brilliant English. Regardless, I know for certain that Wilders could easily be taught to dispense with that script and speak even more compellingly than he does.

My second impression is when he commends the audience on their courage for being there. He tells us the building is protected by several armed security officers. This for him is commonplace: he lives with constant armed protection because those nice people who espouse the Religion of Peace have condemned him to death.

They are not the only ones hounding him: the political class all over Europe tie themselves in knots trying to silence this senior European parliamentarian. What little success they have had has always been temporary.

There is no denying that he is controversial. You may agree or disagree with his views but you at least can know what it is that you agree or disagree with, without having to rely on hearsay reporting from increasingly untrustworthy media, because the USA has the First Amendment and because I support free speech.

Stefan Molyneux is sincere

I had seen and heard him in interviews, and had been impressed by his fluency, vocal use, etc., so I went looking for speeches by Stefan Molyneux.

I found two, both recent, and requiring very different deliveries. The first was in Melbourne, Australia, the video having been posted on YouTube in August 2018. The audience response and references to a protest outside suggest that this is in a university.

A shrinking violet he ain’t. I like the way he bursts into his opening: it’s appropriate for the environment. He’s not using paper of course, and that marks him out as a proper speaker, therefore worth watching closely.

I don’t want to spend too much time or space on this speech, with another still to examine, particularly as he has gone on record as thinking that the other is the best he has made. But before we move on let us admire his technical ability. I can find no flaw with the way he uses his voice. His resonance and enunciation are top flight; also he moves around the space very well so I am not surprised to learn that he studied acting. But …

There are two spotlights upstage, sticking upwards from the floor and rocking very slowly. Their beams intersect sometimes in line with the top of the cyclorama, framing the speaker with an inverted V and sometimes intersecting just above his head showing an X. Why is that even remotely significant? Because I noticed.

All right I concede that I have an obvious interest in how such things are presented, but still if he’s doing his job as well as he wants he should absorb everyone watching and not be upstaged by bloody lights. The casual, jokey nature of the talk is appropriate with this audience, but he is rambling a little too much, indulging in irrelevant histrionics, not keeping his narrative tight enough and actually allowing it to get a little flabby in places. Let’s now see how he did, less than three weeks ago, on 31 January at the EU Parliament.

The video kicks off with a financial appeal to camera. Fair enough: he has to eat, his work requires a lot of expense, and he has chosen the freedom of independence.

This speech, as expected in view of the venue, is far tighter. Many, most, indeed nearly all, would meet that need for discipline by equipping themselves with a script. I warmly applaud his empty lectern, and he’s right: it will be a better speech for being shot from the hip.

I would be prepared to bet that he has not learnt this, but is speaking spontaneously following a carefully structured route. I also reckon it’s modular: he has strung together modules which he has used many times and refined, and they form the backbone. He has a penchant for long lists — sometimes asyndeton sometimes polysyndeton, never apparently a mixture. A characteristic like that, which would be spotted only by sad idiots like me, is the sort of thing that emerges in modular speeches that have never been written down.

Let’s not beat about the bush: Molyneux is outstandingly good. A regular reader will know that the better they are the pickier I get…

He is probably as near perfect a speaker as I have seen (and I’ve seen a fair few). Why is that picky? Because, as I have observed before in this blog — though previously when people were striving for it, never before when they had reached it — perfection, being an absence of flaws, can be boring. Excellence, which flaunts its idiosyncrasies, brings excitement. Molyneux has ironed out his flaws and hidden his idiosyncrasies, and now injects excitement via performance. Here we have a simply brilliant piece of speaking, but are we watching the real person or a superbly sculpted persona? I think the latter, and that disappoints me — though only slightly.

Only slightly, because persona or not he’s completely sincere. He must be sincere: no one in today’s society synthesises the appallingly unfashionable and personally unprofitable philosophy he promotes, unless he’s sincere or insane. Some might try to persuade you that people like he are secretly funded by an evil plutocracy, but I don’t believe that, nor do they, and nor should you. He’s sincere.

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.