Thursday, May 18, 2017

Instead of shutting down controversial women speakers

In doing research for this blog, I've been reading Deborah Kops's fine book, Alice Paul and the Fight for Women's Rights: From the Vote to the Equal Rights Amendment. The book relates that, around 1908, Paul went to Birmingham, England, to study. She decided to see suffragist Christabel Pankhurst give a speech at the university. Here's how Kops describes the scene:
...as soon as Christabel Pankhurst began her speech that day, unsympathetic students shouted, blew horns, sang, and generally made so much noise that no one could hear a word she was saying....When the head of the university learned, to his horror, what had happened, he invited Pankhurst back and made sure the audience stayed in line.
That had a real impact on Paul, who went on to help American women win the vote. And so many decades later, it impressed me with the thought, "What if that had been done for Ann Coulter at Berkeley?", thinking of the recent silencing of the conservative speaker, who withdrew from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley under threat of violent protests. I also thought of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who recently gave the commencement speech at a historically black university, facing a crowd of students, many of whom jeered or turned their backs to her. And of Linda Sarsour, the Women's March co-founder, who faces a campaign from the conservative right that's trying to unseat her as the City College of New York commencement speaker before she ever takes the stage.

You don't have to agree with these women or their views to understand that these are ways of silencing women speakers. And silencing women speakers seems to be a theme of 2017, whether it's shutting Senator Elizabeth Warren down on the floor of the Senate or Michael Moore chewing up women speakers' time at the Women's March on Washington. It's nothing new, but it's a persistent tactic.

A couple of readers demanded tips for what to do when facing down an angry crowd. But I don't think this calls for tips, nor for things women speakers must fix about themselves. This is a problem of our society. You certainly may not agree with what I have to say, but you also are free to ignore it, as opposed to trying to change me, or the writing, or my ability to publish. Public speaking, too, is a series of choices. The speaker chooses what she wants to say, and you choose whether to listen. But that doesn't mean you also must silence her, and it doesn't mean she needs to fix anything about herself or her speech. Let's let her speak. Speakers aren't forcing their views upon you, just airing them. You can choose whether to listen or leave.

Today, most of us look back at Pankhurst and Paul and think of their speeches as heroic efforts to gain equality for women. That equality surely demands that we give women of many viewpoints their platforms and let them have their say. I am sure that those who fought for suffrage--a movement that felt that a vote is part of your voice--did not fight for it only on behalf of women with whom they agreed.

I find instructive the early 20th century solution that Alice Paul saw in action. Motivated to hear Pankhurst, she went to both speeches: The one she could not hear, and the one she could. When we silence speakers, we're also silencing the audience members who want to hear them. As for Pankhurst, so important was it to get her message out, she gave the same speech twice. She knew to expect resistance, and spoke, anyway.

You need not agree, and your results may vary. But if we want women speakers--including ourselves--to have platforms, consistently and with equality, we need to let them speak.

For more on the current struggle to let controversial speakers speak, read my post on the Moderating Panels blog, When the moderator meets the mob: @AKStanger speaks out. It's by a woman moderator who attempted to help a conservative male speaker continue his presentation on a campus, and got herself injured in the process. Despite that, she writes movingly of the need to avoid silencing the speakers we don't agree with.

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