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UKIP and Hitler – The Perils of Learning from the Bad Guys

August 10, 2014

hitler practicing

My favourite British political party has put its foot in it again. When I say favourite, I don’t mean that I’m any more likely to vote for the UK Independence Party than I am to take up residence in an Ebola-infested West African village (with all due respect to the brave medics who are doing exactly that).

It’s just that UKIP contrives to provide an endless source of amusement through the loose words of its nuttier officials and supporters. In the latest “UKIP moment”, one of its European Parliament members, Bill Etheridge, urged his audience at a public speaking seminar to learn from the example of Adolf Hitler.

According to a story in today’s Mail on Sunday:

Mr Etheridge, who recently wrote a book celebrating golliwogs, made his astonishing remarks last weekend while training young Ukip members planning to stand in council or parliamentary elections.

The West Midlands MEP was hired to give a class on public speaking at the Young Independence Conference in Birmingham.

He suggested that the audience should take their oratorical tips from ‘a hateful figure who achieved a great deal’.

Mr Etheridge, 44, said: ‘Look back to the most magnetic and forceful public speaker possibly in history. When Hitler gave speeches, and many of the famous ones were at rallies, at the start he walks, back and forth, looked at people – there was a silence, he waited minutes just looking out at people, fixing them with his gaze.

‘They were looking back and he would do it for a while. And then they were so desperate for him to start, when he started speaking they were hanging on his every word.’

He added: ‘I’m not saying direct copy – pick up little moments.’

He clearly didn’t expect some youthful mole in his audience to relay his words to the Mail on Sunday, because his next statement rather embarrassingly revealed an inability to practice what he preached:

When a member of the audience asked Mr Etheridge, who was tasked by his party to deliver the conference, how they should use social media for pro-Ukip campaigning, he warned: ‘If you think for even a second that what you say can be screwed, twisted and spun, do not allow that video to be posted by people.’

About the only thing that commends UKIP to me is its leader Nigel Farage’s preference for real ale over the gassy slop – commonly referred to as lager – that the vast majority of his fellow citizens prefer to drink when they party.

But in this rare instance, for all the stupidity of Farage’s acolyte in exposing his party to yet another accusation of extremism, I agree with every word that a UKIP official has said.

Like him, I have used Hitler as an example of effective oratory in public speaking seminars. My emphasis is slightly different. I don’t suggest that my students stand on stage glowering in silence at their audiences before launching into choreographed tirades. That wouldn’t necessarily go down too well if you’re addressing the annual general meeting of a gardening club, or presenting an interesting set of epidemiological statistics.

My use of Hitler is as an example of the benefit of practising your speaking skills. I use the famous pictures (above) of the Fuhrer adopting various dramatic poses in a specially-commissioned set of images that he used to perfect his technique. The message is that practice makes perfect.

Fortunately, I’m not at the mercy of a pack of baying, rent-a-quote Labour MPs ready to jump on me with accusations that I’m an example of Nigel Farage’s failure to “clean up” his party. But I did once get into trouble for my use of Hitler’s dedication to his craft at the hands of a client who seemed to believe that even speaking of the evil tyrant might turn her impressionable young students into Nazis. Why did you have to use him as your example, she asked? Because he’s the best example, I replied. Why didn’t you use George VI in The King’s Speech? Because I used him as an example of how people can overcome crippling impediments to become effective speakers, I said.

Like Etheridge, I also use Churchill and Martin Luther King. In my seminars they are joined by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Adele, Peter Kay, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin – all to illustrate different aspects of the art of keeping an audience awake.

My relationship with that particular client was never the same again, but I have no regrets about using Hitler as an exemplar, and will continue to do so, just as I use Genghis Khan to illustrate a particularly brutal negotiation technique now employed by The Islamic State to great effect in Iraq.

The person concerned was an educationalist who should have known better than to suggest that you can’t learn from bad people. Of course you can. Should you is a more relevant question. After World War 2, the United States had no compunction in using Werhner Von Braun’s expertise in rocketry to design the systems that took it to the moon. Was Von Braun a bad man? That’s not for me to judge, but the records show that he was a Nazi party member and an honorary major in Himmler’s SS.

Knowledge in itself is neutral – it’s neither good nor bad, regardless of the morality of those from whom it is obtained. There are of course ethical dilemmas over whether it’s permissible to use knowledge that has an evil provenance. Should you, for example, use the results of Dr Josef Mengele’s cruel and lethal experiments on Auschwitz prisoners if the data he obtained fills a gap in scientific knowledge and thereby benefits mankind?

But the fact is that we learn from bad guys all the time – from the mistakes they make as well as from their achievements. So I really don’t know who is more stupid – Bill Etheridge for his maladroit insensitivity to the use his party’s political enemies might make of his history lesson, or Mike Gapes, the rent-a-quote Labour MP who said of Nigel Farage: “‘One of his MEPs training young candidates to speak like Hitler? Simply unbelievable.’”

If what Gapes said was accurately reported – a big proviso given the source of the quote – then he’s as guilty of distortion as Etheridge is of naivete. A plague on both their houses, say I.

In my humble opinion you learn as much from bad people and evil acts as you do from those who are popularly regarded as the good guys. What’s more, one man’s villain is another man’s hero, so if you start being selective about whom you learn from you end up in a whole lot of trouble. Do you admire Hitler because he was the builder of motorways and lover of dogs and small children, or Churchill because he was a bullying, alcoholic, war-mongering racist who thought that the sun should never set on the British Raj and sent thousands to their deaths in Gallipoli?

The moral of the story is that enlightenment is to be found in unlikely places, whether we like those places or not. What we do with our enlightenment is another matter altogether.

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