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Thank-you, chair.

Ladies and gentlemen:

At this very moment, all around the world, people are sitting in lightless conference rooms, seminar rooms, press centers, and parliament chambers listening to other people speak. Those who are speaking are mostly only speaking because they expect someone to be listening, and most of their listeners are only listening because someone is expected to speak. In other words: someone speaks, although they have nothing to say, while others listen, although there is nothing that they want to hear.

Just like us, here, and now.

Imagine alien visitors landing on this Earth and trying to explain this apparently pointless behaviour. Would they be able to find any comparable, less pointless phenomena? Or if not less pointless, at least pointless in a different way?


In churches and at musical and theatrical performances you may also find assemblies of people sitting attentively and quietly while a small group of people or one individual presents something. In the one case people are apt to complain if something unexpected is claimed, in the other case they complain if everything is predictable. But when they have to listen to a speech, they generally do not complain at all. So the listeners to a speech apparently expect neither the solace of Faith nor the distraction of entertainment.

A similar situation is also found in schools, but here the objective is to be furthered of having the listeners learn something. Experience shows that this often does not happen. Perhaps this might explain the normal response to speeches: people are not interested, they do not learn anything, but after over a decade in the educational system they do not find this disturbing, but rather experience it as a regression to a familiar but unfortunately past situation in which they are able, free of responsibilities, to follow their own thoughts or to enjoy the lack of them.


But what does the speaker gain from enabling their non-listeners this inner return to a simpler age? Although they can safely presume that no-one will be truly interested in whatever it is that they are bringing forth, they can nonetheless be certain that every slip of the tongue, every infelicitous turn of phrase, every slight error of fact will be mercilessly registered, analysed, and ridiculed. Nothing is apter to awaken the the critical faculties of a contentedly drifting and somnolent public than the wrongly pronounced name of an obscure Pacific island republic, or an error in the fourth decimal digit of the chewing-gum exports of a world-famous American confectionery producer. The speaker has nothing to gain – should they truly have a message then it is only a matter of time before they are committed – and everything to lose. It is likely only the repressed desire to exercise some day the power of their earlier oppressor, the teacher, that keeps the speaker upright and exposed while they flaunt their lack of knowledge of their subject and their dearth of rhetorical gifts. Or possibly a misplaced feeling of duty, which convinces them that they should not disappoint the supposed expectations of their supposed audience.

For Freud these two last possibilities would be one: the voice of duty is that of the superego, which in its turn is the internalised voice of earlier figures of authority, above all of the father. What a liberation it would be if that voice would finally fall silent!


There will now be a 10-minute coffee-break, after which Dr. Smith will be making his presentation on 'Cultural Inertia in Melanesia: Lessons for the Sovereign Debt Crisis.'