At the moment Australia is in the grip of a referendum – a postal ballot – on whether same sex marriage should be made legal.
In my constant search for interesting speeches I came across this one from Millie Fontana, lending her voice to the “No” side of the argument. Is Millie a died-in-the-wool bigot? No. Is Millie an ignorant redneck who doesn’t know what she’s talking about? No. Is Millie a spittle-flecked, hate-filled fascist? No. Am I going to tell you about Millie? No. I think it would be better for her to do the telling.
There is a stress symptom that is very widespread. Those who study such things in depth tell me that it seems to be hard-wired into us. Most tiny babies do it when they are tired (one of my sons did: the other son just curled up and slept). The symptom involves a hand doing something somewhere around the back of the head. It can be rubbing the neck, fiddling with an ear, scratching the scalp, anything like that. Now watch Millie and her hair. Millie is stressed, and why wouldn’t she be?
I shall now doff my rhetor hat and leave you alone to listen to her story. It is a very important one. Her message even more so.
We have previously looked at speeches delivered to it by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Henry B. Eyring. In the latter post I expressed puzzlement at the extraordinarily precipitate legislation that was railroaded through most western governments almost simultaneously in 2014. Where, I ask myself, was the groundswell of opinion that caused the sudden overthrowing of centuries of accumulated wisdom concerning the essence of marriage? Where were the demonstrations, where the street-corner oratory, that persuaded governments to such a piece of legal and social vandalism with scant debate? No answer comes. If I search for debate and dialogue on the subject I find none before the politicians announced their intent, and after it merely imbecilic name-calling at those who questioned. This tends to be the way with fashionable pieties.
Today we look at a speech to the colloquium, delivered on 18 November by the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir’ Ali. I have admired Bishop Michael for many years, not least because he persistently questions and often disputes the dictates of Political Correctness rather than meekly following the line of least resistance.
Michael for the first minute draws attention to the atrocity that occurred that morning at a synagogue in Jerusalem. It is not the most upbeat of openings, but who could deny that it has to be addressed?
Michael spurns script or notes.
He begins by defining marriage, citing a whole range of witnesses – recent university research, historic context, the churches’ role, St Augustine of Hippo, various more modern philosophers, and even the law. He moves on into the reasons for marriage, listing the benefits for children, for the married couple, and for Society. Finally he addresses what can be done by either the church or the state to help the institution, covering the need for preparing a couple for marriage and preparing each individual for being a father or mother. Throughout, he includes illustrative material to bring it all alive.
It is a tripartite structure, and not particularly difficult to remember or to operate. That is why Michael does not need script or notes. But it lacks a narrative thread. I look now at that preceding paragraph and think how easy it would be to conceive a theme that created a thread to make the speech much more digestible for the audience and – more importantly – memorable. The improvement would be marked.
He is good, and I did not expect otherwise, but even the good can use help.
We shall at this blog be returning to this colloquium with at least one more speech.
Let’s not beat about the bush: this colloquium was a response by religious leaders to the astonishing, sudden, almost violent railroading-through of unheralded, unmandated and unrequested legislation all over the western world to permit homosexuals to get married to each other. It was a puzzling and deeply suspect political initiative that one day I will find the time to examine in depth. Meanwhile it remains a sine qua non fashionable piety for those who seek to burnish their right-on image by being seen to adhere to such things. That is clearly what the politicians were banking on.
Oh dear: here we go again. Eyring is subservient to a script.
I’ve heard his first minute just a couple of times and already could shoot it from the hip with more conviction than he does here. More importantly, so could he. He just doesn’t know he can. This is one of those times I find this blog almost insufferably frustrating to write.
Eyring goes on to read out an impassioned and emotional account of the happiness of his own marriage and family life and, to head off accusations of basing his research on a sample of one, he proceeds to spread the story much wider. In passing I do wonder how the Roman Catholic priests in his audience (remember, this is in The Vatican) are responding to this – with envy?
The entire account of his own family is chronological – probably the easiest structure that exists. If you sat him down with a cup of coffee across a table from you, and asked him simply to tell you about how he met his wife, how his family has built over the years, how it represents the bedrock of his personal well-being, I absolutely guarantee that he could speak for five minutes more fluently and with infinitely more engagement than he does reading here for five minutes. He could have done that in this speech, it would have taken care of nearly half of it, and it would have been so much better.
The remaining time would have required slightly more sophisticated structuring, but again the same truth needs shouting from the hills –
He absolutely does not need a script.
Nor does anyone else: I’ve proved it countless times. He has a powerful message to put across, and he has assembled his arguments very effectively, but in then reading the thing he has sliced away easily 80% of its persuasiveness.
At 6:20 he turns to a pronouncement, published by leaders of his church. That is a perfectly appropriate thing to read, indeed it is better to read than to learn-and-recite. Otherwise I want to tear up his script and, by showing him how to do without it, showing him how much more compelling he becomes without it, showing him how easily he can manage without it, set him free to work with 100% of the power of his message rather than the 20% he struggles with here.