Stephen Fry: a study in futile pontification

I happened upon the following uploading on Upworthy, entitled

Stephen Fry Takes A Firm Stance On Grammar. He Doesn’t Go The Way You’d Think.

Stephen Fry has carved himself a public image for Being Clever, and good luck to him: we all have to eat. However irritating I may find his persona should not (and will not) bother him one jot.

Essentially what this six-and-a-half minutes is all about is that language pedantry is tiresome, pointless and indicative of all sorts of negative characteristics pertaining to the pedant. Before you start jumping up and down wanting to cite the numerous times he has pompously put down panellists on his TV programme, QI, when their syntax was in his judgement less than flawless, I have to tell you that he has got that angle covered.

Oh yes, he declares, he used to be like that; but he grew out of it.

With a deft little flick of his rhetorical wrist he paints himself perfect. He knows all the rules better than you do, has decided from henceforth to apply them only selectively, and if you don’t follow his lead you are a fossil.

If you haven’t yet judged by my tone allow me to make it clear that I find this pontification tedious, not least because it is itself a form of pedantry.  It seeks to replace one set of rules with yet another. Furthermore it is shallow pedantry, not just because it is a case of the silly and superficial masquerading as the profound but because it chooses to be blind to the market mechanisms that govern the growth and development of language.

As with so many things there is a tension between those who would change everything and those who would change nothing. These two extremes need each other: the one drives the change the other applies the brake. Somewhere between them is the course on which our language will progress. The brake is the Devil’s advocate that ensures that only the best of what is new prevails.

Anyone who arrogates the role of arbiter of acceptability is being just plain dumb, because it’s futile. The market will make its decisions, and those decisions will be right. Millions of verbal transactions between speakers of the language will result in fostering and pruning of words and phrases and syntactical patterns, and so the language grows. It really is as simple as that. Those who love the language should watch and enjoy the game, rather than trying to dictate it.

Q. Who led the Pedants’ Revolt?

A. Which Tyler.

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.