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.

 

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.

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.