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Patrick Stephenson Headshot

The Meaning of Malala

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It's been awhile since I was inspired by something, but it happened the other day. I was listening to a girl give a speech on her 16th birthday. Some maniac had shot her in the head because she wanted the freedom to go to school. She survived the bullet and somehow recovered. When she inspired me, she was giving one of the best speeches I had ever heard in my life.

She didn't inspire me because she's a prodigy -- a teenage LeBron James of speakers. What got me was the message.

I have experience as a speechwriter. When people hear this, they often ask me: Hey, I need to give a speech -- what should I say?

The answer, now and always, is: say the obvious. Don't try to enchant people. Just tell them the goddamn truth, and your honesty will inspire them.

And what was the truth in Malala's speech?

That aside from the ringleaders and the masterminds who are either half-insane or in it for themselves, many of these terrorists are just Pashtun redneck peasants who don't know any better.

She told the story of a boy at her school who was asked why the Taliban oppose female education. She said the boy pointed to a textbook and said, 'A Talib doesn't know what is written inside this book.' And then: "They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school."

This sums up this dilemma of terrorism. Fighting it should be about changing the behaviour of very impressionable and ignorant people who haven't experienced the Freudian revolution, to say nothing of the Industrial Revolution.

So aside from the big leaders, you just can't drone-bomb your way out of the problem. You have to educate your way out of it. At the very least, you have to stop the leaders from indoctrinating others into it.

We know this. We've always known it. But much of modern life seems to involve an unconscious rejection of the obvious, and it took a sixteen-year-old who had chewed up and spit out a bullet to say it in a way that would make us listen.

The problem is that education -- anyone's education -- isn't our priority, at least not that of the young Generation Mess. If you turn from Malala to any of the fluffy-haired frivolous fools or the smirking exhibitionist sexpots that take up our Twitter time, then one is disposed to think, well, there's just no hope for the planet. People like this can't solve the problems of the 21st century. They can't even stumble out of a limo without showing off their private parts.

Malala shows us the way, but the irony is that she should have died. She was shot in the head, for Chrissake. By the percentages, she should have been a footnote to one day's news-cycle - oh the Taliban, poor girl, so sad, whaddya-gonna-do, pass the fritos.

But she lived. Now, more likely than not, she will be a major influence not only in her own country but maybe the world.

Like Malala, freedom is fragile. It's lucky. It's a baby barely breathing, half still-born. If it survives, it's a damn close-run thing. Freedom walks along a razor's edge. It travels the path of a bullet that goes through a young girl's forehead, but does not kill her. She lived, and freedom lives.

The problems of the 21st century -- extremism, climate change, demography, you name it -- demand responses that only rigorous education, and the freedom to pursue it, can provide. Maybe it's time my generation showed Malala's commitment. Maybe Malala's meaning is that if education isn't the answer, then there is no solution.