I found it a curious sign of our times that when I emailed the former president of the Boston College Republicans, a student group on campus, to invite an interview to speak on free speech and other issues, their president, Thomas Sarrouf, expressed hesitancy.
It was not an unexpected response. I suppose I may be the sort of person to whom they would be wary of speaking with. Personally, my political identity aligns more closely with an anarchist capybara than with anything Mitch McConnell has to say. I am also an opinion writer for The Heights, whose editorial board identified a speaker invited by the BC Republicans, Hadley Arkes, as prejudiced, pointing to his views toward LGBTQ+ marriage.
His response was also at least somewhat curious to me. I, as a first-year student at the time and a first-semester columnist for The Heights, was not a present student when Arkes came to speak. I have no gripes with the BC Republicans, and I would assume they have no gripes with me as an individual.
But their hesitation, I recognize, is not unfounded. As Sarrouf assured me, to speak in Republican tongue has a less than positive connotation on American college campuses.
“I think our campus is very liberal and intolerant of conservative views,” he told me when we sat down for the interview. “I think it speaks to a certain liberal ethos of the campus where if you have opposing views, then you’re liable to have significant pushback, and that pushback only goes one way.”
I do not share many political views in common with Sarrouf, but I certainly have noticed, as well as he, a certain dogma of accepted expression at Boston College. We do not protest spectacularly like Berkeley or Harvard. Everyone loves to argue with students at the anti-abortion table, but this is as far as we go in my experience. Civil discourse, a most essential pillar of American democracy, seems mal apropos at Boston College.
Speaking, after all, is a tricky and fickle activity. Meaning is lost in translation; audiences often do not hear what you mean to say. Consider this metaphor of rubber duckies in a stream.
Your words spoken now land, “plop!” in a gentle stream like the beautiful little rubber ducklings you intend them to be. They float along, slowly at first, tightly organized into beautiful little sentences, well on their way to be seen by the world.
Before long, all your little ducklings have shuffled this way and that and are swept away in the current. Your audience looks on in perplexity. You wince to see all your ducklings causing confusion to your perceivers downstream.
One of them, your critic, reddens. He reaches angrily into his duckling bag and unleashes a torrent of angry speech onto your flock. Others look on in horror. Before long, assaults are executed left and right onto your simple message, displayed clearly in a line of duckies: you like campus newspapers that have a political leaning. It makes for better reading, after all, which is why you write for The American Gavel Free Press.
“Just who do you think you are?” says your critic’s ducklings. They reveal what you’re really insinuating: you hate the most prized institution in our United States of America: apolitical, truthful reporting.
More critics add to the stream. Now, another writer declares your opinion is simply problematic—journalistic neutrality is the crux of American democracy. Fascist! What’s more—your opponents say your thinking is a symptom of perverse privilege and dominator culture, so yes, please do refrain from dumping your duckies into this stream in the future. (UR DONE).
A stream of twisted and incoherent ducks, all jumbled and noisy, does not invite easy comprehension. You could be forgiven for losing the urge to speak at all, so clogged and dysfunctional our stream of public discourse has become.
Our stream has become inundated with words. Words convey meaning, thus an abundance of words would indicate an abundance of meaning. Words are fickle little creatures, though, and they too elude understanding. Words that confound. Words that oppose each other. Words organized into sweet little maxims about the counterintuitive nature of words. Words, so many words, that the word “words” collapses from a signifier of meaning—“words”—to a sound made with the mouth—“/wərds/.”
We drown in words. It is easy to squint one’s eyes and perceive, organized on an O’Neil bookshelf, only white noise—a jumble of incomprehensible language.
There are, in O’Neill Library alone, 2,336,000 books: novels, treatises, manifestos, discourses, journals, criticisms, several copies of the Kama Sutra, story collections, and every other fashion of words collated into a bound form. For every classic novel, there are twenty diametrically opposed interpretations, also bound into collections of pages. There is a stack full of books that review the books on the stack next to it.
Even if you are inclined to revere the words already composed, it is also easy to feel imposed upon. So many words, so skillfully put together, that one considers the futility of any attempt to add to our stream. After all, why is what you have to say unique or worthy of addition? Hasn’t it been written already, and perhaps much better than you or I would write it? And won’t so many consider our speech so plainly wrong that it wouldn’t be worth consideration?
I contend that we speakers speak because we feel we must. We have stories in us. We want to tell them. We are humans who must express themselves in some way verbally (or perhaps silently in aggressive interpretive dance). Behind every line of writing, every expressive shout, every rebuff—in essence, all the ducks poured into our gentle stream were placed there by humans. Often, I think we forget the basic assumption of speech: a complex, contradictory, beastly, beautiful, human, with human desires and experiences, spoke those words because they were moved by complex, human forces. This, I believe, is the root of our clusterduck.
Rev. Joseph Costantino, S.J., former parishioner of St. Ignatius Church, shares my concern about our current crisis of speech. He is a man positioned at the cultural intersections of this campus. He balances traditional Catholic values with a modernized student body of Christians.
“These are not new debates,” Costantino assured me. “I remember there was a guy, [William] Shockley, when I was in college [in the ’70s] … He had this idea that African Americans were of a lower race. … And there was great debate about whether he should come to campus and how could he be invited to campus? And some people want to hide behind the idea of free speech.”
I, as a 21st century college student, observe this debate today with perplexity. Of course he should not be allowed to speak—racists should never be tolerated. I recognize that this invites some amount of presentism to our discussion. The ’70s were a different time, yet still I, for one, wince at the very idea that he might be invited to an institution of higher learning. This might be considered the crux of the issue: How do we prevent prejudice from spreading while preserving the sanctity of free speech and expression?
Speaking on our Arkes issue, Costantino has a simple and overlooked solution: “I think that it would be wonderful to have a point-counterpoint if you’re going to invite [Arkes].”
His meaning seems clear, but how does this fit into our metaphor? What does it mean in Ducky language?
Line up the ducks alongside each other. Place them in the stream gently, side by side, and let them ride. Allow the ideas to disagree, vehemently if possible, orderly by necessity, and the truth will present itself. This is public discourse.
We hurl our little ducks into the stream, but we do so once we fully understand the other. Costantino summed this sentiment nicely.
“What’s the sign of an intelligent person?” he asked. “An intelligent person can listen to your argument, give it back to you in other words … and then [they] can still say ‘So you see I have listened, I understand, and I disagree.’”
We are impassioned and verbose speakers and we very often lack the capacity to produce cogent arguments, but this is the nature of communication. Our world is filled with /wərds/, and our gentle stream will always be bursting, rushing with duckies. But, if one commits to understanding what is said, to interpreting their meaning as intimately related to the human speaker and everything they have heard in their life, our gentle stream, all jumbled with duckies, encourages useful understanding.
When I sat down to speak to Sarrouf, I did not expect to agree with his views. I did not think agreement was necessary. I wanted the opportunity for us to both sit alongside and observe our ravenous stream of discourse, to parse out the meaning from the noise. We spoke at length about topics as varied as the University’s response to student calls for an LGBTQ+ resource center, the balance of power in the South China Sea, and the philosophy of education. We did not agree, but agreement, again, wasn’t the point.
I recommend that if you do choose to engage in these conversations, treat them as character studies, not as competitions. Approach those who disagree with you with curiosity. Undoubtedly, they understand the world in some way which is in some part inaccessible to you, unless you ask. Discourse is hard, but if we all give it a good quack, we might just wing it.