Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the American civil rights activist Malcolm X’s address to the Oxford Union, a few months before he was assassinated. The debate, on December 3 1964, is the subject of a book by Stephen Tuck: The Night Malcolm X Spoke At The Oxford Union .
The motion for the debate was: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Malcolm’s opening words were: “Tonight is the first night that I’ve ever had an opportunity to be as near to Conservatives as I am.” That caused a disarming ripple of laughter.
Here, straight away, was a man playing on his being out of context: amid the white Anglican British establishment, Malcolm X was an African-American Muslim radical. (The dissonance was embodied in comical form at the Randolph hotel, where a receptionist attempted to insist that he sign his full second name in the guest book rather than just “X”.)
You can see footage of Malcolm’s speech on YouTube, and it’s notable for that frequent easy laughter. The Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley had spoken before him, lampooning him for having changed his name and calling him “North America’s leading exponent of apartheid”.
So, primed to expect a fire-breathing militant, the audience was vulnerable to an unexpected weapon: charm.
As he spoke, Malcolm started referring to Berkeley as “that type”, occasionally correcting himself when he said “my friend” or “my honourable friend”. Each time, it brought laughter. And through laughter, he was able to lead his audience to his serious points: taking ownership of the definition of “extremism” and making a forceful case against what Martin Luther King called “the tranquillising drug of gradualism”.
There’s a small detail, though, that I wanted to mention: he was marked out not only by race and accent but by how he was dressed. His fellow speakers wore, as is traditional, black bow ties.
Malcolm, having split bitterly from the Nation of Islam whose members wore bow ties, wore a straight tie. At the dinner beforehand the only other person wearing a straight tie was the steward pouring the wine.
There is a rhetoric of clothes. How you are dressed has a direct bearing on how you position yourself with regard to your audience. Consider Gandhi’s dhoti, which signalled his simplicity and independence; or, at the other end of things, the comic-opera style of Colonel Gaddafi. When in 1997 Gordon Brown wore a lounge suit instead of white tie to the Mansion House dinner, he was making a statement. And members of David Cameron’s Bullingdon Club circle are still sensitive about being photographed in black tie.
If, as I argue, a key part of persuasion is establishing an identity in relation to an audience, how you obey – or flout – a dress code matters. Are you looking to make an informal bond in shirtsleeve order; or offer the decorous respectfulness of formal gear? If you’re playing the outsider, certainly, a straight tie in a room full of penguin suits will gently semaphore your position.
That said, Malcolm lost the vote by 228 to 137. Perhaps a dickie bow might have been the way to go after all.
To listen to audio of the full Oxford Union debate featuring Malcolm X, click here. The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.
First published in the FT here.