I found 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 talk about freedom of expression and other questions, their president, Thomas Sarrouf, expressed hesitation.
It wasn’t an unexpected response. I guess I might be the kind of person they would hesitate to talk to. Personally, my political identity aligns more closely with an anarchist capybara than anything Mitch McConnell has to say. I am also an opinion writer for Heights, whose editorial board identified a guest speaker from B.C. Republicans, Hadley Arkes, as partialemphasizing his views on LGBTQ+ marriage.
His response was also at least somewhat curious to me. Me, as a freshman at the time and a first-semester columnist for Heights, was not a student present when Arkes came to speak. I have nothing against the Republicans in British Columbia, and I guess they have nothing against me as an individual.
But their hesitation, I admit, is not unfounded. As Sarrouf assured me, speaking in the Republican language 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 on campus where if you have opposing viewpoints, you’re likely to have a big pushback, and that pushback only goes one way.”
I don’t share many political views with Sarrouf, but I certainly noticed, as well as him, a certain accepted dogma of expression at Boston College. We don’t protest spectacularly like Berkeley or Harvard. Everyone likes to argue with students at the anti-abortion table, but that’s as far as we go in my experience. Civil discourse, an essential pillar of American democracy, seems inappropriate at Boston College.
Talking, after all, is a delicate and capricious activity. The meaning is lost in translation; the public often does not hear what you mean say. Consider this metaphor of rubber ducks in a stream.
Your spoken words now land, “plop!” in a gentle stream like the beautiful little rubber ducklings you want them to be. They float, slowly at first, tightly organized in beautiful little phrases, well on their way to be seen by the world.
In a short time, all your little ducklings have moved here and there and are carried away by the current. Your audience watches in bewilderment. You wince to see all your ducklings confusing those who perceive you downstream.
One of them, your critic, blushes. He angrily reaches into his duckling bag and unleashes a torrent of angry talk on your flock. Others watch in horror. Soon, assaults are being executed left and right on your simple message, displayed clearly in a line of ducks: you like campus newspapers that are politically slanted. It makes reading better, after all that’s why you write for The American Gavel Free Press.
“Just who do you think you are? says the ducklings of your critic. They reveal what you are really insinuating: you to hate the most prized institution of our United States of America: apolitical and truthful reporting.
More reviews add to the stream. Now another writer says your opinion is just plain problematic – journalistic neutrality is at the heart of American democracy. Fascist! Also, your opponents say your way of thinking is a symptom of perverted privilege and domineering culture, so yes, please refrain from throwing your ducks into that current in the future. (IT IS DONE).
A flood of twisted and incoherent ducks, all pell-mell and noisy, does not invite easy understanding. You could be forgiven for losing the urge to speak at all, so clogged and dysfunctional has our flow of public discourse become.
Our feed became flooded with words. Words convey meaning, so an abundance of words would indicate an abundance of meaning. Words, however, are capricious little creatures, and they too elude comprehension. Confusing words. Opposing words. Words organized into sweet little maxims about the counter-intuitive 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’s easy to squint and perceive, organized on an O’Neil shelf, nothing but white noise—an incomprehensible jumble of language.
There is in O’Neill Library 2,336,000 books alone: novels, treatises, manifestos, speeches, journals, reviews, several copies of the Kama Sutra, collections of stories, and every other mode of words brought together in bound form. For each classic novel, there are twenty diametrically opposed interpretations, also bound in collections of pages. There is a pile full of books reviewing the books on the pile next to it.
Even if you’re inclined to revere already-composed words, it’s also easy to feel imposed. So many words, so skilfully put together, that one considers the uselessness of any attempt to add to our flow. After all, why is what you have to say unique or worth adding? Hasn’t it already been written, and perhaps much better than you or I will write it? And won’t so many people regard our speech as so patently false that it would not be worth considering?
I argue that we speakers speak because we feel we have to. We have stories within us. We want to tell them. We are humans who must somehow express ourselves verbally (or perhaps silently in an aggressive interpretive dance). Behind every line of writing, every expressive cry, every rebuff—in essence, all of the ducks dumped in our gentle creek were placed there by humans. Often I think we forget the basic assumption of speech: a complex, contradictory, bestial, beautiful, human, with human desires and experiences, spoke these words because they were moved by complex human forces . This I believe is the root of our clusterduck.
Reverend Joseph Costantino, SJ, former parishioner of St. Ignatius Church, shares my concern about our current speech crisis. He is a man positioned at the cultural crossroads of this campus. It 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 an inferior race. …And there was a big 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.
As a student of the 21st century, I watch this debate today with perplexity. Of course, he shouldn’t be allowed to speak – racists should never be tolerated. I recognize that this invites a certain amount of presentism into our discussion. The 1970s were a different time, but I for one still cringe at the very thought of him being invited to an institution of higher learning. This could be seen as the crux of the matter: how to prevent the spread of prejudice while preserving the sanctity of free speech and expression?
Speaking on our Arkes problem, Costantino has a simple and overlooked solution: “I think it would be wonderful to have a point-counterpoint if you’re going to invite [Arkes].”
Its meaning seems clear, but how does it fit into our metaphor? What does this mean in Ducky language?
Line up the ducks next to each other. Place them gently in the stream, side by side, and let them overlap. Allow ideas to disagree, vehemently if possible, orderly by necessity, and the truth will present itself. This is public discourse.
We toss our little ducks into the stream, but we do so once we fully understand each other. Costantino summed up this feeling well.
“What is the sign of an intelligent person? ” He asked. “A smart person can listen to your argument, return it to you in other words…and then [they] can still say “So, you see, I listened, I understand and I disagree.”
We are passionate, verbose speakers and very often lack the ability to produce persuasive arguments, but that is the nature of communication. Our world is full of /wərds/, and our gentle stream will always burst, rushing with ducks. But, if one is committed to understanding what is said, to interpreting their meaning as intimately linked to the human speaker and all that he has heard in his life, our gentle current, all mingled with ducks, encourages a helpful understanding.
When I sat down to talk to Sarrouf, I didn’t expect to agree with his views. I didn’t think a deal was necessary. I wanted us to have the opportunity to sit side by side and observe our voracious flow of speech, to analyze the meaning of the noise. We spoke at length on 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 disagreed, but agreement, again, was not the issue.
I recommend that if you choose to engage in these conversations, treat them as character studies, not competitions. Approach those who disagree with you with curiosity. Undoubtedly, they understand the world in a way that is partly inaccessible to you, unless you ask. The speech is tough, but if we all give it a good bang, we might just shatter it.