Better Audiences

September 2018

Deborah MacLatchy, president of Wilfrid Laurier University, took heat for her op-ed “Not merely free speech, but better speech needs to be protected on campus” (The Globe and Mail, July 31, 2018). By my reading, her goal was not, as some commentators argue, to evade her responsibility to maintain healthy intellectual environment on her campus, nor was she engaged in a conspiracy to shut down free speech or censor conservative research and opinion. Her message was pretty simple. In short: “Hey, can’t we all just get along? After all, love is love, right?”

In talking about “better” speech, MacLatchy appears to mean compassionate speech. It’s a be kind, do no harm ethical directive, like something Jesus might have said: “Say unto others what you would want said unto you.”

If better, compassionate speech is also wise speech, let’s make better speech official policy at all Canadian universities.

The only problem we will have to overcome is reality. To get to “better” speech, the average person usually has to wade through a lot of “worse” speech.This is the path of every poet who’s ever tried to write. Gems, if any exist, lie deep below the shallow topsoil and manure.

The same is true with intellectual work. We work through our thoughts by speaking. We talk with editors and colleagues to figure out what the message is, and how to say it better. If what we say is untrue, unwise, or uncivil, we correct ourselves.

“Worse” speech can’t be easily bypassed. It must be worked through. Even if we could eliminate “worse” speech and jump straight to “better” speech, we face a more severe obstacle to installing a better speech regime: lots of people enjoy speaking rudely, crudely, and stupidly. Smut is an ancient genre. It’s not going anywhere, and neither are the rock stars, shock jocks, and insult comedians who enjoy attacking orthodoxies. In academia, where speech tends to be more formal (better?), plenty of moronic and mean speech circulates. And we must admit to an incontrovertible fact: this “worse” speech often makes life interesting.

We can spend time and money forcing better speech from people who don’t want to speak better, but all we’ll do is waste our time and money. Best to let the blowhards blow, and assume that if they’re capable of feeling shame, they might one day recant and apologize. So if Boris Johnson wants to crack wise about mailboxes, it’s on him. If Nora Loretto wants to embarrass herself by musing about whether the maleness and whiteness of dead Humboldt hockey players has anything to do with a nation’s grief, let her. They’re just being the kind of people they want to be.

But MacLatchy and her supporters are looking at the issue from the wrong direction. We don’t need better speech. What we need are better audiences.

Audiences today have no charity. Especially on university campuses. Speakers whose speech is not of the better kind find themselves hounded and brutalized by mobs eager to see another hanging. Better speech? Who cares. We want blood.

Or perhaps it’s better to say, “We want what we want.” Free speech conflicts on university campuses sound increasingly like riots at Walmart. There, customers rage when the half-price Doritos sell out. On campus, customers rage when speech isn’t their brand. The zenith of consumerism is a free speech crisis on campus.

Educational reformers often talk about how we need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking. They assume that if students learn to think critically, they will avoid the dead ends of dogma and the traps of certainty. This makes sense. But I wonder if we might get further by teaching students how to be a better audience. This training would go beyond teaching active listening and present students with a way of approaching other people and new ideas. What does an audience need to be a good audience? What does a person need to be a good conversation partner? How can one learn to be receptive without becoming naïve, critical but not vicious?

One ingredient of a good audience has to be generosity. Audiences must be willing to forgive the performer’s missteps. When the ballet dancer takes a tumble, the members of the good audience do not laugh, they look away momentarily, allow the dancer to regain her poise, and after the performance has ended, they applaud the dancer for getting through the debacle, or politely withhold their applause, or give it weakly. When a person speaks out of line, errs, says something stupid, the good audience allows the person to take it back and apologize so the conversation can proceed. And if the speaker is truly vile, the audience turns away, leaving that speaker to address an audience of zero.

There is much to say about what constitutes a good audience. But surely it is easier to define and teach the behaviours of a good audience than it is to define and regulate “better” speech.