Do Not Clap, Do Not Boo

Photo credit: Cory Hayden

The following is an excerpt from my book, Conform, Fail, Repeat: How Power Distorts Collective Action, which is coming October 2017 from Between the Lines. It is a critique of how Pride Toronto ran a Town Hall discussion of the demands posed and issues raised by Black Lives Matter-Toronto. In 2016, BLM TO was the honoured group at Toronto’s Pride Parade. They briefly halted the parade to raise awareness of racism – particularly anti-Black racism – within Toronto’s LGBTQ communities and within the pride festival. During the action, BLM TO presented 9 demands, all of which were agreed to by Pride Toronto. The most controversial of the demands – that armed and uniformed police not be allowed to participate in the parade or host booths in the accompanying street fair – generated heated and productive debates about racism, policing/overpolicing, and inclusion. In 2017, BLM TO participated in the parade but refused to register or pay the entry fee: “Pride is actually ours. Queer and trans people of colour actually started this. We don’t need to register for a deadline, we don’t need to tell you we’re coming, we don’t need to pay money for a float. We’re just going to take up space.” (Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of BLM TO)

I want to close by critiquing what I would characterize as an attempt at deliberative democratic practice to illustrate how far Pride Toronto’s response fell from the demands of symbolic democracy. For its August 2016 town hall, Pride Toronto used an open-mic format. What struck me about the format was the facilitator’s insistence that attendees neither applaud nor boo speakers. The do-not-clap, do-not-boo rule was justified according to arguments that are fairly typical of deliberative democratic practice and its commitment to “civil” discussions. Applause, we were told, provides an incentive to speakers to be more emotional, more dynamic, and more rhetorical than they might otherwise be. Booing intimidates and potentially silences speakers. In short, the facilitator argued that reactions from the crowd would distort the discussion and prevent the town hall from obtaining rational, objective arguments. The approach fails in a number of ways.

First, banning applause only makes speaking easier for a specific type of speaker: one who is uninvested, non-anxious (comfortable speaking publicly), and who bears the privilege of assuming that most spaces are already designed for them. It fosters a space that is deferent to authority (that is, to the authority of whoever is speaking), and rewards speakers whose lives are already free from the quotidian ways in which non-dominant groups are stopped and interrupted. Because these privileges disproportionately accrue to white men, the ban on applause disproportionately supported white cisgender male and middle- or upper-class speakers. The ban ignores the importance of community in supporting those who speak truth to power. It ignores the daily psychic and emotional tolls incurred by oppression and the importance of not only communicating that emotional expression, but also—in order to make expressing that experience as safe as possible—allowing fellow-travellers to amplify descriptions of that experience. Although applause may provide incentives for more rhetorical flourishes, insisting on meeting speech with silence breaks the connection between a speaker and their community.

Second, the town hall was organized as a scene where speakers spoke and Pride board members listened without responding. Banning applause, had it been successful, would have created a dyadic speaking scene between speaker and board only. That is, it would have individualized speakers and artificially restricted their audience to the board itself. It is arbitrary to assume, in a moment of collective identity production such as this, that speakers should speak only to the board and not to fellow audience members. Whether or not it was a good idea to have board members listen without responding (and it wasn’t), intervening between speakers and other participants by denying those participants a role as a communicative partner supports the production of falsely individualistic, unemotional, rationally neutral speakers. When grappling with oppression, individualism, coldness, and neutrality are the opposite of justice.

Third, the ban on booing failed in its intention to produce a safe space. Ostensibly, the organizers wanted to promote inclusion by ensuring the town hall was a safe space. A commitment to safe space is both a practical principle (movements are stronger with more participants) and a normative one (movements ought to make everyone they claim to represent feel safe, at home). However, the town hall could never guarantee such a space, particularly because what makes a dominant group feel safe may make a dominated group unsafe. The fact that a central goal of the town hall was to address the impact of anti-Black racism in policing should have woken Pride organizers to the need to create safety through an anti-oppression lens, rather than a liberal anti-censorship lens. The facilitator prohibited booing apparently on the liberal principle that collective reasoning is best served when all opinions are heard. Such a liberal anti-censorship perspective valorizes the least popular opinions precisely because they challenge accepted views and force all speakers to articulate themselves better, to rethink their premises.

As with many liberal principles, however, enforcing a freedom-of-speech prohibition on booing was both individualizing and context-denying. Like the prohibition on applause, the prohibition on booing severed the speaker from the audience. Unlike the prohibition on applause, which undermines the community’s ability to support and reflect the speaker, the prohibition on booing undercut speakers’ accountability to the community they addressed. When one speaker articulated a racist denial of oppression and followed it with “fuck you, BLM TO,” the facilitator refused to censor him while trying to silence audience members who vocally objected. Ostensibly neutral anti-censorship rules intended to create a safe space predictably sided with the anti-Black racism that had precipitated the town hall in the first place. In short, prohibiting booing did not ensure safety, but officially devaluing racism might have. As a counter-principle, symbolic democracy would forgo official neutrality in favour of rules that promote the safety of vulnerable groups even if (or especially if) that causes discomfort for dominant speakers voicing oppressive ideas. This might entail explicitly censoring racist speech, but it should also encourage identifying and implementing a discussion format that rewards universality and accountability.

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