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RDN made a provocative speech in Belfast in November, 2006

(Updated here 22 February, 2008)

In November 2006 I had the privilege of giving the keynote speech at the opening session of a Model United Nations conference held at The Methodist College, Belfast.

I was thrilled to receive very nearly rapturous applause. Less so, to find I had upset some of the audience.

I think too many people enjoy taking offence. I have the feeling that my outing in Belfast served its purpose of being challenging. I would be more inclined to apologise if I thought that I had failed to help people think.

Partly because a version of my remarks made its way to Wikipedia, here is a summary of what I said, as best as I recalled it a month or so later.

After my speech, many young people said they’d much enjoyed it. Some, notably some girls from Hampstead Comprehensive, said they thought it was offensive. I told them at the time that I would welcome a chance to come to their school and be challenged by them. I made several attempts to be in touch, and eventually was given the chance to deliver on that commitment. With great pleasure I spoke (with little controversy) at the school, in summer 2007.

There is of course a great problem with "offensiveness". When I address intelligent people I often make it pretty clear that I do so more in the manner of a stand-up comic than a lecturer. In Belfast (as in Cardiff years before) I knew I was with very bright young people - sixth formers - who did not need or want another dull, PC speechifier telling them obvious right-on things in a preachy way. It follows that I was outrageous and not everyone would get the joke - or the underlying seriousness of purpose.

It is customary to apologise for causing offence. I find it hard to do so since I knew perfectly well what I was about.

The remarks

1. It’s incomprehensible to me that bright young Muslim women would go about in “binliners” (especially when it’s not required by their religion, nor by the tradition of their parents). Maybe they do it because they see their white sisters going around showing their bum-cracks and grubby thongs. Come to that, I could come to prefer the binliners. (My impression is that is that Muslim girls in the veil are making an unintentional homage to the West: they have fallen for the “tyranny of small differences”.)

2. Slavery has turned out not all bad. It’s not at all clear that many (even most?) slaves didn’t have a pleasanter life on plantations than they would have had in Africa. That’s a controversial thought. But it is pretty obvious that their descendants can be thought to owe the privilege of being Americans and Britons to the sufferings of their forebears. So for the descendants, slavery turns out to have been positive.

3. It’s sad to note how reluctant people are to accept that however misguided the execution of recent US/UK foreign policy it has mostly been directed at helping Muslims in the face of suffering imposed on them by assorted Muslims and Christians. In the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, young servicemen of every colour and religion have laid down their lives in an attempt to improve the lot of Muslim civilians. Far more Muslims have died at the hands of other Muslims than have died at the hands of the West. The West is expending blood to avoid the spilling of Muslim blood at Muslim hands - and failing.

4. It’s sad that generations of Palestinians have been led into fighting against Israel rather than teaming up with it. It is my view that the Jews are amongst the most intelligent people on the planet (outscored by the Chinese, maybe) and closely followed by Palestinians (who do much of the brain-work of the Middle East). The Jews and Palestinians would make a formidably constructive combination. To ascribe intelligence to a race (or people or culture) is usually in some sense racist. But then so is ascribing any characteristic at all. Still, it's hard to "celebrate difference" - as we all must now - without stereotyping. It's tricky stuff all round.

5. I’m in favour of our modern version of an old monster, eugenics. Now, parents can to some extent choose whether to have a disabled or crippled (in a moment of exhilaration, I used the word, “bent”) child. I know that disability can be noble, and all human life has great value, and that disabled people are often deeply valued - but still I can see no harm in parents who would rather have a “normal” (I said “straight”) child so choosing. I used outrageous language because the conditions of normal or not-normal children are whatever they are, whatever words one uses, and because there is no word for “disabled” which doesn’t convey disadvantage, and that’s right and proper. I am ambivalent about circumlocution, especially when it clogs up honest and compassionate debate. Of course, circumlocution is also polite and kindly. So I was pointing out in a satirical way some of these dilemmas.

6. I can’t remember the exact context but I probably said something like “poor people are stupid”. This is worth saying because society has provided decent welfare and free education to everyone whether unfortunate or feckless for at least 50 years. It is beginning to be true that the people who don’t take advantage of these services actually can’t. That’s to say: everyone with “good” DNA has drifted upward of disadvantage, and the “underclass” which has stayed behind may just be, well, stupid. It may help us to understand that such people really are disadvantaged. In the past, people wondered which poor people were lazy rather than stupid. Now it is possible that all poor people are likely to be deserving. Of course, stupid people aren’t bad. Many are nicer and kinder than clever people.


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