Personal warmth is as important as intellectual steel

IT IS a curious truth of human discourse that the possession of powerful arguments is useless if your personal manner undercuts your own case. To the attentive ear, shrill, self-righteous or, worst of all, humourless voices condemn the speaker, and there is no court of appeal. Our instinct knows that, whatever lines of apparently ineluctable logic such a voice may weave before us, there is a crack in its argument somewhere, through which humanity has leaked out.

Our capacity for snap judgements of great discernment is explored by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 book Blink. Of course, a moment’s introspection reminds us that we work this way all the time: how else could we catch a flying ball or go speed dating? Indeed, it may only be because we were first wrongly taught to distrust these powers as irrational that the partisans of statism and leftist politics have been able to gain traction in recent decades. Often speaking of high ideals in a spirit half hectoring aggression, half pious posturing, these well-meaning agelasts would never have gained a foothold had we trusted ourselves to tune out the rhetoric and hear the values written in their voices.

Not so Kenneth Minogue, who died unexpectedly last week, aged 82, at a conference dedicated to the ideas of the free society. A student of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and himself a professor at the London School of Economics in the 1980s and 1990s, Minogue was an impressive scholar, possessed of an originality of thought backed by deep knowledge and understanding. Blending conservatism and classical liberal thought, he was a principled and perceptive advocate of freedom’s power to advance both humane values and material wellbeing.

Minogue’s 1963 book The Liberal Mind skewered a progressive mindset that was in danger of becoming the only acceptable way for intelligent people to think. His 2010 follow-up, The Servile Mind, showed an intellect that had only sharpened with age, as he confronted the growth of a form of democracy in which politicians limit the space for moral judgement, making citizens accountable to the government rather than the other way around.

Yet Minogue’s fine mind and long service as a public defender of the virtue of liberty – including a six-part series for Channel 4 on free market economics called The New Enlightenment – were the beginning and not the end of his qualities. For, as many of his friends and admirers have testified this week, he brought to the war of ideas qualities of good humour and generosity that made his case, to the perceptive, just as completely as his arguments.

I had the good fortune to meet Minogue once or twice, and I can only echo the same experience: intellectual steel without the usual accompanying chill.

Such personal warmth did not keep him free of enemies. Those deaf to the tone of human kindness are prone to drown it out as they shout in its imagined defence. But Minogue set a standard for public discourse that anyone who cares about a cause can learn much from. And he reminds us that listening not just to the clever surface music of an argument, but the voice that speaks it, can help us see the ugly truth behind siren voices.

First published: City A.M., 5/7/13

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Filed under Freedom, Human nature

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