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Sarcasm, Speech, and Power

Every quarter, the School of Engineering offers a course on public speaking: ENGR 103. It is a wonderful class that offers a safe forum for students to practice conveying important ideas to other people through impromptu speech and formal presentation. Many who enroll are international students who, having learned English as a second language, want to improve their expression. Many of these students do not feel confident in their private English speaking abilities, let alone their skill when placed under the pressure of a public forum. Why the course is so positive, it seems, is that students receive constructive feedback on speeches that they prepare for every class – from fellow students who must do the same. Regardless of the linguistic barriers that many students face, this exercise at least marginally levels the playing field.

At the end of the quarter, the students invite guests to a final night of presentations. To warm everyone up, the instructor, Matt Vassar, has five students invite their guest to give an impromptu speech, which is then critiqued by the student who invited them. I was one of the fortunate guests granted the opportunity to recount an embarrassing tale about my host, and I relished it, if only because it added another story to our friendship.

After the public session, the class split into sections where six or so students presented their final, eight-minute speeches on a topic of their choosing. In our section, my friend spoke first. Her topic was: “My Identity.” A Chinese national, she has spent significant amounts of time abroad for vacation and schooling, and indicated that, for a while, the influence of expatriate living eclipsed any effect that Chinese culture had on her. She claimed, in fact, that for a long time she understood neither Chinese culture nor what that meant for her personal identity. After many years, though, she has come to the conclusion that while we cannot help but reflect, to a certain extent, the culture borne by our native tongues and the very earth we inhabit, identity is an idiosyncratic exercise, one in which we have some space to choose with what we want to identify.  She cited her own connection with America through education, athletics and most importantly, language, as an example of the flexibility of identifying markers, and encouraged others in the room to consider the flexibility of their own cultural identity.

Yet the idea of flexible cultural identity presupposes a degree of privilege, be it socioeconomic, ethnic, or as prominently appeared that evening: linguistic. When disparity in that privilege exists, this is when individuals can struggle to adopt, or even survive in, the cultural landscape of a foreign place.

Immediately following my friend, another Chinese student spoke about his struggles learning the English language. After calculating in middle school that the probability of him spending enough time abroad to make use of his English skills was only about one percent, he determined that the relative utility of time that he spent learning English was only one hour for every hundred of study. Consequently, he decided to focus much of his intellectual attention elsewhere. This calculation caused him strife, however, when his parents told him at 18 that they were moving to Canada and that he would have to attend university classes taught in a language that he barely knew.

For the first few lectures, he said, he could not even understand that there were assignments, let alone when they were due. Though he went through a number of harrowing experiences with linguistic isolation during his speech, perhaps the most poignant to me was when he spoke about humor. A friend of mine once said of her Danish that: “I can speak and understand everything that I need to. But I’m just not funny.” Humor is a marker of deep linguistic proficiency because it is so often predicated upon cultural and historical knowledge or rapid wordplay that only rather proficient speakers can truly understand. So when this Chinese student, having learned enough English to navigate daily life without help but not enough, perhaps, to engage with humor in Canadian English, sat in the front row and heard his professor try to connect with students through jokes, all that he could do was pretend to get it and laugh along.

What happened next is one of the most thoroughly disgusting experiences that I have had at this university. The third student to speak was a young man whom I have had the distinct displeasure of making an acquaintance: an affluent white male, who, instead of choosing an engaging or challenging topic as did all of his peers during that presentation, chose the most patently offensive option possible. His entire speech was about that lowest form of wit: sarcasm. Though the entire talk seemed irresponsibly off-the-cuff, what offended me most about it was a video clip that the speaker showed from the series “Family Guy”.

Seth McFarlane isn’t really noted for his tact. Nor is his humor all that funny. He spent a universally excoriated evening this year hosting the Oscars and spewing misogynist and homophobic vitriol, so it isn’t surprising that his show would include a clip of a cheap joke made at the expense of a disempowered group. Therein, after a white man walks in soaking wet, clutching an umbrella, and growls “Nice day we’re having.” A caricatured “ethnic” man (brown skin, curly hair, thick cartoon lines of hair on his chest and arms) remarks, “Haha, yes, he said ‘nice day’, but he covered with rain… So he said it’s when your brain know, it’s not really nice day…he said the opposite, it’s funny.”

To make things worse, when he was taking questions, the speaker picked out, unprompted, the Chinese student who gave the aforementioned speech, and said, “You look like you have a question to ask.” He did this not to coax out an inquiry in which he was really interested, but to embarrass him even further, if he even understood that the speaker was trying to make fun of him.

After every speech, the students and guests in the audience had the opportunity to tell the speaker what they did well before offering constructive criticisms. I had to take the opportunity to turn his puerile technique back upon him. During the compliments section, I said, shaking with anger, something to the effect of, “I think that it was a great idea to use a racist video clip to illustrate a useless point but coincidentally belittle the very sense of linguistic isolation, especially in humor, that one of your classmates just spoke for eight minutes about struggling with.”

I’m attuned to the idea that my own voice, speaking for others, is not always the best dissent to such blatant discrimination. Yet nobody else was speaking up. That suffocating silence that sets in when somebody in power belittles you is so frustrating, because it is precisely in those moments, our faces red with shame or our hearts smoldering with ire, when we must speak out. The zeppelin-like inflation of this individual’s ego likely prevented him from taking me seriously, but I am convinced that we must never let such discrimination off the hook. Perhaps that’s what public speaking is really about.

Here’s my challenge for the week: speak truth to power. Alternatively, consider what privilege you might hold that, reflected in your speech, inflicts psychological harm upon other people. Counter the stifling hegemony that empowered groups on this campus profit from, and even when you feel small, speak with conviction.

Speak truth to power by emailing Taylor at [email protected]

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