Jonathan Haidt and time well spent.

At the end of October, the Institute for Humane Studies posted a video of a talk that had recently been given at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The speaker was Professor Jonathan Haidt. The talk is entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, which just happens to be the title of a book that he co-wrote with Greg Lunianoff.

This talk is nearly an hour and a quarter long. If you regard that as bad news, then the good news is that watching it is time well spent.

Haidt presents himself as a reasonable, warm, friendly, winsome person. Cynic that I am, and one that previously was not familiar with him, when his talk starts sailing into water that has recently become controversial to the extent of generating riots, I wonder whether this is a persona that he projects in order more safely to navigate this perilous course. I go off and explore his other speeches and interviews, and return a verdict of Not Guilty.

This is not a persona, but the real Haidt, and the perilous course takes him face-to-face with what has colloquially been termed the Snowflake Culture – i.e. university Safe Spaces, etc.

Gratifyingly, however, he does not so much confront it as strive to understand it. That essentially is the genius of this talk. He explores its origins, its ethos, making us his audience almost empathise, before he explains why it is profoundly and dangerously wrong.

The talk has more visuals than I would like. The editors of this video cut away from the slides enough to prevent Haidt becoming for us a voice-over for a picture show; but the audience in the hall does not have that privilege. My rule with visuals is simply stated: include it only if the argument would be significantly impoverished without it. I venture that there are some slides here that fail that test.

In striving to help us understand various details, Haidt supplies a great deal of survey data which are displayed for us in the form of various graphics. I have absolutely no quarrel with this talk being data-rich. Speakers who address controversies without showing their workings are suspect, and graphics convey such workings very effectively. However, it’s almost as if including an abundance of slides generates its own momentum and that the slides that are necessary and desirable somehow give birth to others that are less so.

How often have I observed in this blog that the better the speaker the pickier I get? The previous two paragraphs are a good example of my becoming hyper-picky, because Jonathan Haidt shows here that he is nothing short of an exemplary speaker. It’s not just the delivery which is superb, but his argument is flawlessly structured also.

I think I may read the book.

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.