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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Surrealist Veto

How could you effectively protest a speaker and not interfere with the ability of the speaker to speak?

Here are some ideas:

You get there early with large group of people, all wearing bowler hats.*  Your group fills the front rows.  Once the speaker is introduced, you all begin very quietly to sing "We Shall Overcome." Quietly singing, you file out of the auditorium one row at at time. The speaker completes his racist speech after the first 10 rows have been emptied. You have interfered a bit by delaying the speech and singing very quietly, but your opposition is symbolic. If you had enough in your group to fill the entire auditorium, so much the better.

You get there early with your group, fill as much of the auditorium as possible.  After the the speaker is introduced, you applaud sarcastically for 5-10 minutes, shouting words of praise.  Then you all take out your headphones, take off your bowlers, and listen to music while studying from your textbooks. When the speaker is done, you take off your headphones and applaud for another 10 minutes, delaying the Q and A for ten minutes. You ask all your questions in a foreign language. Or do them as knock-knock jokes or sarcastic questions: "What, in your opinion, is the most effective way of keeping black people in their place." Hand these out to your group in advance.  

If it is in a room with chairs not attached to the floor, turn them to face the back of the room.

Fill the front rows with couples kissing, both heterosexual and not.

Have some jugglers at the back of the auditorium doing tricks very quietly.

The idea is the following: protest with some amount of wit. You are not depriving the speaker of the right to speak, and someone who is there to listen will still be able to listen. You are not obliged to listen, or to listen seriously.  

Or, you could just listen and then in the Q and A put forward your best debaters.


*Why Bowler hats?  Because this is a surrealist protest; your are channeling bowler-clad men from RenĂ© Magritte.


Thomas said...

I'm not sure I approve of these ideas. In the extreme case, the entire audience is composed of protesters who are taking up spaces that a presumably interested audience has been blocked from.

Many of the stunts are disruptive even though they are quiet. They deliberately break rules of decorum. (It's rude to make out with your date at a public lecture, even if you are being wholly sincere.)

In all cases, they are protesting the mere expression of ideas and the protest is therefore anti-free speech, not an exercise of it.

We keep forgetting that free speech implies free hearing. That is, it's not just the right of the speaker to say things. It's the right of the audience to assemble and listen. Even just taking up a seat and then not listening (with headphones in, say) is a disruption of this right to assemble.

Jonathan said...

thanks for your comment. Yes, you are exactly right. They are a breach of decorum. That's kind of what I was going for: non-violent protests that made their point in a semi-humorous way. The audience hostile to the presumed message presumably has as much right to assemble as those that are in favor of the speaker.

Perhaps I'm trying to thread the needle too finely and will have to go back to the drawing board. (Forgive the mixed metaphors.).

FIRE makes a point of saying that codes of conduct that mandate respect are contrary to the 1st amendment. In other words, you cannot be in the business of policing tone and decorum. Surely free speech will be indecorous at times.

I'm very interested in decorum as precept of neoclassical aesthetics. It is a Horatian doctrine of appropriateness or fittingness. For example, much comedy is a breach of decorum: saying things in public that transgress social norms. Free speech advocates, of which I am one, always point to the Lenny Bruces of the world as prime examples. It seems to me that the audience can be indecorous too, that this is not only the prerogative of the performer. A carnivalesque response to a controversial speaker is itself expressive, in my view. There is no 1t amendment right to be taken seriously.

You'll notice, though, that my last suggestion in this post is very serious and decorous.

Thomas said...

Well, I don't think the Communist Party has a right to assemble for its own purposes at an American Enterprise Institute symposium. It has a right to book it's own room somewhere else.

I think it's the organized nature of the these protests that concerns me. If an audience is truly spontaneously incensed by a speaker, and becomes boisterous, and many members walk out. That is a reaction to the speech, not a protest against the speaker. Likewise, if a questioner during the Q&A says, "I think you're an asshole," that's a breach of decorum (in polite society) but totally protected. It might make you look at bit ill-tempered, but you might also have the rest of the audience on your side, occasioning loud cheers. All that is well and good.

I think FIRE generally gets the line right. Do you have a link to where FIRE talks about respect vs. the first amendment?

I think schools are in a special situation when they demand a respectful tone from students. At university, students are being taught to communicate in a reasonable manner; they must be told when their style is indecorous. They are not well-served by professors and administrators who give them the impression that their histrionics are acceptable. (The recent upheavals at Evergreen are a stark illustration, but the shrieking Yale student from last year is just as good.)

Jonathan said...

Check out FIRE's "Speech Code of the Month" feature. https://www.thefire.org/category/speech-code-of-the-month/

Or put the word "respect" in a search box at the FIRE site. This comes up all the time. Also "civility."

I think your attitude would be perceived as paternalistic & and that an insistence on decorum would be counterproductive in many cases.

Thomas said...

I believe that decorum is on par with usage (and even prosody). Unfortunately, I think our shared attitude about good prose is seen as paternalistic in the same way. Indeed, correcting usage is actually often counterproductive. This is a general problem in the attitude of students, both in their learning and their activism. The students/protesters aren't really interested in developing their style through criticism of their language. They just want to be told how right and good they are. As Branford Marsalis explains...

Anonymous said...

For the debaters in the Q and A, you'd have to have preparation. You'd also have to have speakers willing to answer questions and able to discuss things.

Generally, beyond of asking questions I am most interested in protests / informational pickets outside, or counter-events. Information, about who the speaker actually is and what the scholarship / etc. on the topic actually is, is important.

Do not agree on students. Perhaps mine are just better. I know it is fashionable to say they only want to be told they are good, and I know there are students like this, but -- I find they are actually more original than they have been in some time.

There is also quite a lot, that is good, to be said for being indecorous. I am really for it (not in the Trumpian sense, of course).

Thomas said...

I agree that being indecorous has a function in discourse. It's just important to realize that it's a fleeting moment. If you get to the mic in Q&A and just say, "You, sir, are an asshole," you may be saying what many in the audience were thinking. You may get a laugh and a cheer. But you do not also (under rules of decorum) also get to demand a reasonable answer to reasonable question. You've used your moment to break decorum--and decorum was what affords us reasonable dialogue. As long as you respect this and go and sit back down, albeit now basking in the approval of those who support you, all is well. If I was your dean I wouldn't reprimand you. But if you want to parlay your stunt into a show stopper, then I would have to step in.

Jonathan said...

Our chancellor is stepping down, will be replace on July 1. In a public forum on race relations, the chancellor was told "you sound like Donald Trump." And "do your job or be replaced." etc...

Let's say she was not happy:


I'm not saying the chancellor can do no wrong simply because she is a black woman, but this is typical of how the particular culture of students today tends to negatively affect people who should be the natural allies / leaders.

Anonymous said...

There's also this:

"...how contemporary liberalism sanctifies free speech and imperils its most disenfranchised citizens."

On the silencing of K-Y Taylor. http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/dont-expect-liberalism-come-defense-keeanga-yamahtta-taylor/

Anonymous said...

...but I was thinking of indecorousness more in creative protests, street theatre, happenings. And part of the deal with protest is that no, you don't back down. Are your administrators always decorous, Thomas, or do they engage in covert violence?

I am, of course, being yelled at for not calling for a no-confidence vote, so I'm conservative.

Jonathan said...

I had that in mind for my "surrealist veto." A break in decorum as a witty, theatrical act of protest. There is also the issue of power: think of the abusive parent who demands courtesy from the child but does not treat the child with courtesy. Administrators who demand civility from faculty, staff, and students, but do not practice it themselves in these relationships. It is hypocritical and deeply creepy.

Anonymous said...

Right. These are exactly the things I was thinking.

Thomas said...

My view is that administrators should assert the power of decorum, decency. They provide the stability that progress depends on for leverage. They provide the prose, if I may, on which our verse turns. We might even say they provide the reality that our surrealism foils.

The child's tantrum is a regular occurrence at stage in life and should be dealt with firmly. The parent's rage is (in the normal family) rare.

Many years ago, I wrote a defense of hypocrisy. I think the fear of being called a hypocrite has weakened our institutions by undermining the (personal) confidence of their leaders. Obviously, leaders should be fired if they are corrupt or incompetent. But a police officer who is caught speeding and pays her ticket should not be embarrassed when she issues a ticket to another speeder.

Anyone can lose their composure. Decorum means having to say you're sorry. That goes for both students and professors. Those who actually organize chaos should be banished from a community that values order, i.e., orderly discussion of difficult subjects.

A student swearing at a university president is not the end of the world. It is when the student feels justified in doing so, and the president grants that the student is, indeed, justified, that the time has come out of its joint.