Amy Wax: victory over handicap

I came across a fairly short piece of speaking by Amy Wax, Professor of Law. She delivered it on September 26, 2016.

I had recently seen a bit of a Twitter storm about an op-ed she had co-written in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and wanted to see how well she communicated orally. I wasn’t particularly anxious to hear her speaking on that controversy, because a few minutes of online research had revealed that it was just another example of PC-driven imbecility trying to shut down a source of reasoned debate. I’m afraid I find that terminally tedious. It is not tedious that academia is being destroyed and that the spinelessness of its authorities is hastening the process: it’s the PC arguments that are tedious. As often happens, the PC arguments opposing her in this matter make Professor Wax’s case for her.

I just wanted to hear her speak, and this video fulfilled that desire.

I have absolutely no comment to make concerning what she says in this video, because I am barely listening. She is commenting upon a Paper about which I know nothing.

Without that distraction I am able to focus entirely on her delivery.

She is a university professor, therefore delivering a lecture is just another day at the office. She has no discernible problem with nerves.

She is reading her script. My opposition to scripts is well enough known on this blog, so I shall not revisit the fundamentals of that specifically. She is reading exceedingly well, with a huge amount of expression, so all her lecturing experience is bearing fruit and negating many of my issues with scripts.

However …

Like most good readers, she periodically lifts her head for a parenthetic, of-the-cuff digression. I invite you to watch those and see how, even though her reading is bright and expressive, her digressions are more so. It’s nothing to do with voice tone or modulation, which is already easily as good as we could want, it comes down to something as basic as seeing her eyes. As soon as we have her eyes we also have the expressiveness of her face, and that adds a dimension that is beyond price. The funny thing is that I think she knows this. When she returns to her script she seems to wind up the vocal expressiveness a notch, as if to compensate for the loss of her eyes.

Even without listening to what she is saying I find this little talk fascinating as a study of the benefit of learning how to dispense with all paper aids to speaking. Professor Wax is younger than I, but she’s been round the block a few times. Within the limitation of having believed that she needs paper she has taught herself very well. It is mouthwatering to speculate on how good she would have been if she had learned to do without.

Douglas Murray knows his stuff

On 23 January 2014 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion This House Believes postwar Britain has seen too much immigration. 

We have previously examined a speech from Baron Singh in opposition to the motion, and today we look at a speech from Douglas Murray in proposition.

Douglas Murray is not new to this blog.  I have previously looked at his speaking herehere, and here.

When Murray speaks everything seems to be spontaneous. This could be either because he just wings all his speeches, or because he is extremely good at artifice, or because he has learnt how to prepare and structure a speech so that he always knows where he is and where he is going and trusts himself to say spontaneously what needs to be said at any point. I have no doubt that it is that last. It is what I teach my trainees (of which Murray is not one). It is not particularly difficult, but it does require you to know your subject. Murray knows his subject.

He opens with an apology for not being in a dinner jacket, and harvests an excellent laugh in the process.

When moving on to the matter at issue, he puts his hands over his face and rubs his forehead at a particularly critical moment. It beautifully underpins the words that he is speaking concerning the seriousness of the subject. Is that spontaneous or choreographed? I don’t know, but it is every bit as effective at conveying un-self-conscious sincerity as Kate Hoey’s adjustment of her clothing in my previous blog posting.

He bombards his audience with telling statistics, fierce arguments and heartfelt views. His papers on the dispatch box are there for reference not for prompting, and he mines the references skilfully – even throwing back at his opponents data from surveys they had quoted. Murray is very good at this.

But it is his peroration that really puts the icing on this cake.  From 08:33 he kicks down to go into his big finish.  I say ‘big’ but the term is relative: Murray likes to play with intensity rather than volume. If you watch any of it, watch that last section. The applause from the audience is instant, sincere and well-deserved.

Indarjit Singh – a talking head

On 23 January 2014 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion This House Believes postwar Britain has seen too much immigration. 

One of the speakers in opposition to the motion was Baron Singh, a prominent Sikh and a distinguished commentator on a range of issues. His habitual media of commentary are print and broadcast journalism, so I was interested to see whether he had developed an equivalent level of accomplishment in public speaking.

The answer is apparently no. He may be able to deliver brilliant speeches, but he is not doing so here. What we see him doing here is trying to replace speaking skill by becoming in the most real and literal sense a Talking Head. He has written an article for us, and now he is reading it aloud. This is not a speech: this is a reading. The degree to which this lamentable practice is widespread among those thinking they are making speeches, doesn’t make it any better,

It is a pity, because what he could bring to this debate is important. Let us therefore turn to that.

Debates by definition tend to polarise opinions, and when seeing the motion I feared lest it descend into one side saying that a portcullis should immediately drop and prevent all further immigration, or – even worse – that the other side should wrongly accuse them of saying that. Worse than either would be accusations of what the other side really thinks, regardless of what they say. That really is the most scurrilous variety of argument ad hominem. I have already heard most of the speeches, this blog will cover some of them, and I am pleased to say that in the main it stays above that.

Singh however, does say, at 7:17, “The motion, suggesting that we close the door on immigration, …” Does it? Cast your eye back to my first paragraph for your answer.

At 5:40 he says, “Uncontrolled immigration can lead to social indigestion”. He also speaks of areas in a country being “burdened” with too much immigration. That being as fierce a position as we get from his opponents, we might wonder which side of the argument he takes. Could we be witnessing the result of sloppy thinking? With that in mind, consider that from 6:40 he calls for some enforceable international migration agreement that takes into account –

  • Relative national prosperity
  • Level of unemployment in the receiving country
  • Gradient of economic disparity between countries
  • Dearth or excess of relevant skills

Forgive me, but are not 2 and 4 very similar? And are not 1 and 3 essentially identical? And if so, do not symptoms of sloppy thinking abound?

I’m sorry, but Baron Singh did not distinguish himself here.