I Will Not Be Told: Stephen Fry's Speech At Harvard
    By Samuel Kenyon | February 22nd 2011 11:03 PM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I just attended Stephen Fry's acceptance of the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, given by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

    His speech was quite different than the one he gave for the Intelligence² Debate.  The main theme tonight was "I will not be told."  

    To be told is to wallow in revealed truths.  Bibles and similar religious texts are all about revealed truths which cannot be questioned, and the origins of which require the readers to make many assumptions.  And it was even worse in the dark times of religious book control and illiteracy in which you might not even be allowed to read the book--you have to get the mediated verbal account from someone supposedly holier than you.

    Discovered truths, on the other hand, are not told.  Of course somebody could tell you a discovered truth, but if you don't trust them you can question it.  Discovered truths are can be discussed.  They are questioned and tested.  

    Fry suggests humility before facts--reason or sounding reasonable is not enough.  Back to question and test. And so on.

    Stephen Fry then fumbled through a quick version of history to describe how the Greeks had some free inquiry and attempts to discover truth around 2000 years ago, but that was almost extinguished for 1500 years by the Christians.  But not all hope was lost, and then the Enlightenment brought discovered truths back into action.  Science kicked into gear, the United States was born, and so on.


    Later on, Fry was discussing Oscar Wilde's adventures--somewhat like the Beatles, Wilde was not well known in England and then burst onto the scene in America in large part just by being an interesting character.  When somebody asked him how America, born from the greatest ideals of freedom and reason, could have disintegrated into the Civil War, Wilde responded that it's because American wallpaper is ugly.

    The concept is that violence breaks out when people have no self worth because, which in turn is assisted by ugly artificial habitats.


    Stephen Fry says how he used to see posters of Che and Marx in college dorms mixed in which pictures of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.  People thought that revolutionary politics and rock music could change the world for the better.  But they can't.  The posters he prefers to see on people's dorm walls are Einstein and Oscar Wilde--the life of the mind instead.  Fry then said something about the Oxford way to "play gracefully with ideas."


    Stephen Fry tells us (note this is not verbatim): "It's not humanists' job to tell religious people they are wrong. However," and there is a pause as the crowd laughs, "it is none of their fucking business to impose their revealed truth on the wonderful world of doubt."

    Amidst anecdotes of Oscar Wilde, Fry repeatedly asserted his second theme, which is that humanists should not tell other people how to live.  In fact, he accepted the award on the condition that the Humanist Chaplaincy would not try to convert religious people and smugly tell them they are wrong.  It's all about showing vs. telling.

    As Fry so splendidly puts it: "You can tickle the minds of others, you can seduce the minds of others, but don't try to own the minds of others."


    The high point of the question and answer session, which Fry compared to a KGB interrogation, was a serenade by a young lady with a ukulele, in which she offered the homosexual actor her baby-making apparatus in no uncertain terms.  "I have all the tools that you require to breed / So send along your seed."


    Update: I found the name of the Ukelele girl: Molly.  She also was playing humorous songs about Wikipedia and Facebook in the beginning before the introductions.  Looks like the Stephen Fry song was premeditated:

    Molly Lewis is a "National Treasure." Not my words, that's how Wil Wheaton described her. Neil Gaiman is also a fan. So is Dr. Demento (and he's a Doctor!), Jonathan Coulton, Adam Savage (another Harvard Cultural Humanist Lifetime Achievement honoree) and Paul & Storm. Molly was a last minute addition to the Harvard event honoring Stephen Fry, probably because she had just posted her "Open Letter" to YouTube and Stephen Fry had tweeted his blushing approval. I wouldn't call her songs "premeditated," so much as "clever," "well-written" or "finely crafted." "Catchy" might be another good word.

    I'm a big fan of Stephen Fry. I'm a bigger fan of Molly Lewis.

    "Premeditated" was a joke--as if I had thought someone would, in a rush of emotion, compose that song on the spot for Stephen Fry, and that I then discovered that it was already written before.  But of course I already knew Molly was a musician and had songs already written since she played at the beginning.
    How long does the speech last?  Writing a science article for 2.0 (clue: carbon) is higher on my priority list at the moment.  However:
    ... a quick version of history to describe how the Greeks had some free inquiry and attempts to discover truth around 2000 years ago, but that was almost extinguished for 1500 years by the Christians.  But not all hope was lost, and then the Enlightenment brought discovered truths back into action.  Science kicked into gear, the United States was born, and so on.
    sounds like a grossly over-simplified account, and somewhat biassed.

    If the speech is not too long, though, I might listen, but not to the detriment of carbon.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    yea, I'm a bit surprised at that comment. The same Greeks made Socrates drink hemlock for asking too many questions...

    Hence a "quick version" of history.  His summary of history was quick and I doubt intended to be historian-quality.  And my summary of his summary was even quicker, because this is an essay about his speech, not a transcript.  I left out many things that he said, and rearranged the order of some things.
    What irritates me is this: if he really said that Greek attempts at free inquiry were extinguished by the Christians, he's completely wrong. Greek civilization began to decline at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when Greece's two greatest city-states -- Athens and Sparta -- fought a brutal war over who got to keep their empire. (And yes, I'm oversimplifying, but as you'll see, my oversimplication is nowhere near as bad as Stephen Fry's). The war took place FOUR HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE THE BIRTH OF CHRIST. By the time Christ was born, Greece had long since been conquered by he Romans. Nor did science "kicking into gear" have ANYTHING to do with the formation of the United States. Stephen Fry may not know ancient history, but he should at least know THAT.

    OK, so he didn't want to give a history lecture. But I'm a stickler for accuracy, and this guy is just playing fast and loose with facts. A little ironic, given that the lecture is about "discovered truths".

    Other than that: nice post.

    Thanks Samuel for this post. I really enjoy Stephen Fry, wish I was on the east coast to have seen him in person.

    Geez Robert, why so overcritical? Stephen is an entertainer, a rare erudite one, sure, but entertainer nonetheless. Like if someone were to describe the cold war as capitalism vs. communism--simplified, yes, wrong, no.

    @Omar, when people use 'Greeks' in such a context, they are referring to those few Greeks whom we now recognize as hugely advancing the state of knowledge, not all of Greek society. I hope when people say Americans put the first human on the moon you don't retort in the same fashion.

    People really need to unbutton their shirt collars and relax.

    Not only the greek/Christianity simplification and other crap but especially weird I think is
    "Marx ... he prefers to see ... Einstein and Oscar Wilde--the life of the mind instead."
    WTF - Oscar Wilde above Marx because of the mind? Has the guy ever heard of philosophy, or if he does not appreciate such, sociology, were Marx is and will stay a towering figure, regardless of how many misinterpret him? (And in case somebody wants to poop around on shortcomings of the older Marx, the older Einstein went down a blind alley, too).
    You are failing to grasp his supposition.

    Fry is trying to compare and contrast between the types of thought that lead, on the one hand, to ideology, and on the other, to reason and empiricism. I'll agree that using a phrase like 'the life of the mind' to make this distinction was confusing, since I doubt Fry would begrudge Marx credit for being a deep thinker. And choosing Wilde may be a surprise to anyone except fans of Stephen who understand his love affair with Wilde and allow for his indulgence in discussing Wilde at any chance he gets.

    The point he is making is not criticizing Marx's ideas or stating that Wilde's work was superior, it has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the process. He is showing the difference between holding on to ideas dogmatically vs. playfully questioning ideas. In this context, Einstein/Wilde represents this childlike playing of ideas, whereas Marx/Che represents a static and rigid ideology.

    A very questionably supposition! In fact, there are probably now more people who do not grasp relativity and elevate wrong conclusions to dogma than there are people really believing in crazy-ass Marxism. Einstein and Marx are both equally innocent/guilty here.
    Again, I don't think he was pointing to whether or not those thinkers' ideas have been misinterpreted or understood properly, but of how those whom are influence by each distinct thinker (einstein/wilde vs. marx/che) behave epistemologically. More often then not, the segment of the population who hold scientists like Einstein or irreverent artists like Wilde in high esteem tend to be more questioning, while people who hold the ideas of, for example, Marx/Che, are more ideological and dogmatic.

    Steve Davis
    "...whereas Marx/Che represents a static and rigid ideology." I don't think so. In fact, Marx at one point declared he was not a marxist, for that reason.
    To clarify, I wasn't trying to say that Fry asserted any such notion of Marx. I was supposed to be relaying Fry's thoughts on those thinkers' followers, of whom, generally, the Marx/Che/etc. variety are more ideological while the scientists/poets more often think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Sorry if I was, or still am, obtuse.

    Certainly Steve, as you say, Marx himself was not a Marxist.

    However people who put up posters of Marx probably are, or at least they probably wish to appear to be.
    It is this practice and its observable effect of increasing dogmatism that Fry was (gently) criticising.

    Steve Davis
    No doubt. By the way, I liked your little post "Email and trust."