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 theyd 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.
1. Its incomprehensible to me that bright young Muslim women
would go about in binliners (especially when its
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. Its not at all clear
that many (even most?) slaves didnt have a pleasanter life
on plantations than they would have had in Africa. Thats 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. Its 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. Its 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. Im 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 doesnt convey disadvantage, and thats 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 cant 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 dont take advantage
of these services actually cant. Thats 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 arent
bad. Many are nicer and kinder than clever people.