Jordan Peterson and thumbnails

About two years ago the Oxford Union invited Dr Jordan Peterson to deliver an address and Q&A. It was around the time that I had him on the blog before, and having re-read what I said I stand by it. I also see that I resolved to find more of his speeches, and am shamed that it took this long.

The general terms of reference I laid down for myself in this blog eight years ago, and have only occasionally broken, stated that I would focus on talks as distinct from Q&A. That is because most of my work is in helping people to succeed in the one-way traffic of a speech, because technically it differs hugely from the more familiar two-way traffic of conversation. I mention that because a glance at the way the stage was set, with two armchairs but no lectern, suggested that even though a talk was flagged this would be mainly Q&A. That impression was correct, and gloriously so.

He enters to an enthusiastic greeting, and acknowledges it graciously. That is followed by a brief exchange between him and the host. He assumes a 30-minute talk followed by Q&A, but the host suggests 15-20 minute talk. He immediately acquiesces, and launches straight into telling the audience he’ll be discussing hierarchies.

He is pensive, halting, repetitive in laying out his stall, and as he gets into his stride those three adjectives recede but never completely go away. He could have eliminated them completely and had a smooth, beautifully parsed monologue by having a script, but if he’d done so he’d have had difficulties in cutting down the talk from the expected 30 minutes.

Far more importantly it would have been glaringly obvious to everyone that he was sitting there merely regurgitating something he’d written previously, whereas here it is equally obvious that from a baseline of vast learning he is expressing ideas and concepts to which he has devoted a great deal of thought and is continuing to do even as he speaks. What we are seeing is transparent, spontaneous sincerity. What we are seeing, if you will forgive me a metaphor, is a live music recital as distinct from someone miming to a record. What we are seeing is the reason I continue to bang on about proper speakers not using paper, and why I tear paper out of the hands of my trainees. This is proper speaking, and everyone is capable of doing it.

Editing himself on the hoof he gets his talk down to about 10 minutes and then, for more than an hour, he takes questions. The questions are good. They probe and provoke, and he clearly revels in that. I find it riveting, but shall not even attempt to single out any points he makes. How do you précis something that is already academically concise?

Instead I’d like to praise his metaphor for low-resolution versus high-resolution examination of concepts. He speaks of low-resolution being thumbnail sketch overviews, and I like that. Inevitably I try applying it to myself. I am reassured that my habit of collecting masses of thumbnails (he’s got me doing it now) leaves enough space in my brain for high-resolution images reserved for work, family and principal interests, meanwhile enabling me to understand just enough when working with experts in their fields or listening to someone like him.

Trevor Phillips and censorship

In February 2020, The Free Speech Union was founded by Toby Young. At the launch party, there was a speech from Trevor Phillips, who is the Chair of Index on Censorship.

Nice opening! One of the mantras that I drill into my trainees is that ultimately public speaking is just talking. Yes, there are differences between standing on a platform, speaking before an audience of hundreds, and chatting to friends over a cup of coffee, and it’s obviously worth exploring those differences, but still it’s just talking. Phillips, in this relaxed opening, embodies that philosophy. I repeat: nice opening.

Who edited this? I’m not just complaining about how many edit points there are, but how easy it is to spot them. I’m exercising my right of free speech when I declare that this has been edited with fists of ham.

This is a very good speech, prompted by bullet points on a smartphone to be sure but still a very good speech on a very important topic. I want to hear it, warts and all. I want to hear the real Trevor Phillips uttering the real words, all of them, because they’re good and wise words. I don’t want someone else’s idea of a sanitised version. I suspect that the removed bits are just a few “ums” and “errs”, but I want to hear those too. They are part of the authenticity. A string of obvious edit-points opens this up – with ludicrous irony – to accusations of censorship. Duh!

Andrew Klavan: a polished sapphire.

Think about the people you want to be around. Think about everything that’s the opposite of shallow and trendy. Think about four years of conversations you’ll never forget. That’s Hillsdale College.

(from the website of Hillsdale College in Michigan)

As a courtesy I habitually supply explanatory links for people, places and publications involved in my blog posts. That’s the first time in more than 460 posts that I have been so impressed as to reproduce words from a venue’s website. In April 2019, at Hillsdale College Andrew Klavan delivered the speech we feature today.

Declaration of interest: I’m a fan of Klavan’s, having discovered him years ago via his Revolting Truth videos. I listen to his podcast, The Andrew Klavan Show with its ridiculous opening signature song, preceded by an even more ridiculous one-minute flight of absurdity that sometimes reduces even him to hysterics. He makes me laugh, makes me think, keeps me abreast of the goings-on over the pond. I also appreciated his autobiographical book, The Great Good Thing. I reveal all this to warn that there’s a danger that you might find me fawning.

Klavan begins at 2:00, following an introduction by Abby Liebing. She reads her introduction, and that’s ok given that introductions are more than 80% factual information. However, if I had guided her, I would have urged her to dare to face the audience and not the script when giving us her name because I’m certain she knows her own name well enough not to read it. Yes, of course, the paper is a security blanket; but we want to see her face.

Klavan’s speech ends at 33:12. There follows nearly the same amount of time for Q&A.

He reads his speech, and suddenly I’m torn. He reads better and more expressively than almost anyone I’ve heard. In fact in passing I reckon virtually all of his podcast is read from a script; but you have to listen very closely to spot it because he has really mastered the art of writing in spoken – a subtly different language from written – English.

The writing is magnificent. For instance at 10:10 Klavan brings up the question of abortion, and a few seconds later gives us in just one, short, jaw-dropping sentence the strongest argument I’ve heard that abortion must not be the mother’s choice. And it’s based not on theology but biology.

Would any of the speech’s brilliantly economic choice of words have been compromised if he had shot this speech from the hip? Possibly, but that would have been offset by the benefit of the words being transparently spontaneous. It would have been the same brain that conceived the words, albeit without the luxury of dwelling over each phrase, so right there is the compromise to be judged. The freshness of spontaneity or the sparkle of economy? An uncut diamond or a polished sapphire? That’s why I’m torn.

We can compare the two. At the beginning, from 2:42 Klavan morphs from the end of a brief thank-fest into some spontaneous musing on the state of society and whether it is appropriate to laugh at it. At 3:36 he moves to his script, and the colour minutely fades.

But now I doff my rhetor hat, become an ordinary audience member, and tell you that it is a stupendous speech. There are points here and there when I’d take issue with the detail of some of his arguments, but that’s part of the stimulus that makes it so enjoyable.

I often press the stop button when Q&A begins, but thinking I’d sample a little of it I then sampled all. Hillsdale College yields up some excellent questions. Most of them from students, but there is one questioner who describes himself as “seasoned”. We can see only the side of his head, but I reckon he’s slightly more seasoned than I, and I am more seasoned than Klavan. At any rate, Klavan for once is put on the back foot. His answer is pretty good but his body language suggests that it’s been a narrow thing. I’m glad I saw that.

I enjoyed the whole hour.

James Surowiecki: the Wisdom of Crowds

In May 2016, at the CMX Summit East, James Surowiecki gave a talk entitled The Power of the Collective. Essentially it was a promotion of much the same message he launched in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, published way back in 2004.

I thought I’d explore it, in order to compare and contrast the message with Douglas Murray’s appearance on this blog on 19 March, and his latest book The Madness of Crowds. Are they contradicting each other?

No.

Let’s get the rhetor stuff out of the way quickly so as to get on to Surowiecki’s message. He speaks well, shooting from the hip as a proper speaker should. Voice projection is good, diction good, generous expressive gestures. Being picky I’d have liked him to maintain broad brushstrokes a little more, as he occasionally gets bogged down in detail. He should try to save the detail for his anecdotes which are excellent – particularly the last.

His only apparent stage-craft failing is a lack of light-consciousness because he too often drifts stage-right, putting his face into the gloomy penumbra of the spotlight-edge, and occasionally actually moving completely out of it into stygian darkness. That spotlight is not fixed, it’s a follow-spot, so a slap on the wrist is due its operator; but if Surowiecki had learned the actor’s trick of ‘loving’ his light in order constantly to be seen at his best advantage, he would never have gone into darkness.

The people are always smarter than their masters.

That’s an anonymous aphorism I first picked up on decades ago, and subsequent experience has always confirmed it. It’s not that the masters are thick, though quite often they are a little – that’s a result of the type of mentality that wants to obtain fame or power – but the main reason is well-described in Surowiecki’s speech. Breadth and depth of experience and opinion will always make a community’s judgement better than those who claim to lead it. That’s why I detest calling politicians ‘leaders’. They are not: they are representatives.

The way optimally to harness the wisdom of the crowd is by democracy, free speech, and small government.

Wherefore therefore Douglas Murray’s “Madness of Crowds” in all this? Murray clearly shows us the consequence of silenced dissent, no-platforming, the revolting bigotry of political correctness, hate-filled hate-laws, and so on. Surowiecki clearly shows us the brilliance of a community consisting of the widest possible divergence of opinion and experience. Murray and Surowiecki are on the same side.

Though small, there has to be a government. There has to be a group of representatives, empowered by the rest of us to take rapid decisions when – for instance – a deadly virus threatens us.

But for my money the most dangerous and widespread disease now threatening our planet and the people upon it is what I call bureaucritis. We are threatened by the inexorable growth of an international army of parasitic, unaccountable, self-perpetuating, self-regarding, and monumentally unimpressive pen-pushers. They are drones when they should be workers. They constantly fail in their judgement and urgently need to be brought to heel – or, in many cases, put out to grass.

How? Don’t ask me: I’m not wise enough to supply an answer to that. I’m not a diverse community.

Lawrence Reed and Cicero

In the summer of 2019, Acton Institute hosted a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed. His theme was Modern Parallels to the Fall of Rome.

As I habitually do with speakers on this blog, I have attached to Reed’s name a hyper-link that will take you to a biography, but you will find there not much more than you learn from the detailed introduction given him by Stephen Barrows. He does such a good job of the introduction that I have attached a hyper-link to a biography of him also. He supplies one particular piece of information that seems relevant to this blog. At 2:03 he tells us that Reed has delivered at least seventy five speeches a year for the past thirty years. That’s an average of three per fortnight. He should be pretty good at it. Reed begins at 2:50.

I firmly tell my trainees that every speaker – every speaker – experiences a Hump. They often seem incredulous, but here at the beginning I see tiny, subtle symptoms of nervousness. I am impressed and delighted that even with his huge experience his adrenal glands are still doing their job to raise him to optimal performance. If a speaker is not nervous at the beginning he’ll bore you. If you can’t see Reed’s nerve symptoms that’s because he’s good at disguising them.

After brief preliminaries, including an amusing anecdote, he launches straight into the subject of the Ancient Roman Republic. What I particularly like, the lecture title notwithstanding, is that he seldom bothers to draw modern parallels at all. He doesn’t need to: it’s all implicit. He merely narrates relevant information about the Roman Republic, its crumbling and its transition into an empire, and lets us work out the parallels for ourselves. As a general rule audiences dislike being spoon-fed.

For instance as a Brit my ears prick up at 09:15 when he tells us that Rome had an unwritten constitution which was nonetheless very powerful and built on long established conventions. The British constitution, likewise unwritten, was recently tested, somewhat assailed, but succeeded in riding out the crisis.

When at 18:45 he quotes Sallust’s description of the character of the administration of Rome in its late republican crumbling, he allows it to transmit its own parallel message. Likewise when he tells us at 20:00 about Tacitus warning of ‘lust for power’.

Though the general principles of what he describes are not earth-shatteringly new, it is pleasing to have so much clarity of chapter and verse attached to them. It appears also to be necessary to repeat the obvious warnings.

The lecture is half-an-hour long, as is the Q&A that follows. During the latter he is asked to identify which historical figure (other than Jesus Christ) he would most like to meet. Topping his list is Cicero, whose writings tell us so much about the crumbling of the republic. Cicero has quite a lot also to tell us about public speaking, so I might try to gatecrash that conversation.

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.