Today I read a short statement from someone (let’s call them ‘X’) praising a speaker at a conference (it was a primarily a science, not an atheist conference – but we can talk about any event you like). People responded by politely agreeing or disagreeing about the relative value of that particular person’s contributions.
I was probably the most critical, albiet polite, but I didn’t say why. Here’s why.
I’m at a show, sitting with one person I know (let’s call them ‘Z’) and a bunch of people I don’t know (they’re friends of Z and I get a hurried introduction to the group). They’ve got drinks with them, which might be a contributing factor to what happens next. As the show starts, the performer happens to laud the name of a well-known figure in scientific history.
One of the people (who I don’t know) screams out ‘HE SUCKS!’ in response.
I am mortified. Of course, I’m in the same row as this heckler, and Z promptly tries to shush their friend, leading to a little ‘But he DOES suck! He does, right? Huh?… what? Wha the problem? He sucks!’ confusion.
By then, the damage has been done, because once you heckle the guy with the microphone on the stage, their attention is inevitably directed in the direction where the sound came from and I feel like I’m sitting with the bad-kids-on-the-back-row-of-the-bus.
There’s nothing I can do. Apologetic waving from the audience runs the risk of making it look like I was heckling, and the last thing I want to do is draw more attention and further ruin the start of the show that hasn’t even got underway yet. In addition, I’m upset to think that the performer might think that I endorse this kind of behaviour. There’s nothing I can do. Except feel absolutely dreadful, of course.
The show continues without any further hitches (apart from unrelated technical ones, but whatthehell. Tipsy people in the audience aren’t to blame for that).
Z does what I think is the right thing. When the show is finished, they corner their friend and make a firm admonishing statement as to ‘time-and-place’ and how they personally felt very embarrassed by the heckling – and did they consider the performer’s right to do their job and the feelings of the rest of the audience when they were heckling?
The heckler continues (although clearly ashamed) to defend their ‘you suck-age’ comment, by saying that they were only doing it on behalf of Z. But they get the point and apologise. It’s fairly obvious that alcohol was a contributing factor to what they did. The point is made and the conversation is over.
Of course I’m curious. Z had a bad experience with the well-known figure in scientific history? I can’t help myself and ask what the underlying issues were.
Z makes four clear and powerful personal reasons (backed up by another member of the group who was present for two of the examples they raised), as to why this particular figure was not only incredibly inappropriate and rude to them and others, but fairly unprofessional in the past. In fact – they’re blatantly sexist as well.
I’m rather taken aback to learn these things, and feel rather disappointed that Z had these experiences. Of course they colour my view of the popular figure in question, because I greatly respect Z and know that they’re one of the most reliable, hard-working and professional people I know.
But I’m also aware that people change, people learn, people can be humbled and still have very valuable things that they can give to the world – and that ‘YOU SUCK!’ comments are NOT best way to deal with the matter. I could easily have a great experience in the future with regards to this popular figure (as shown by the opening comments of this blog-post by X) – and maybe I could hear of them working with Z in the future (although I still think that would speak more to the consumate professionalism of Z rather than the figure in question).
That popular figure has got a fantastic track-record of contributing to science and makes an empirically-measurable difference. There’s a very good reason why they’re on the stage, working as they do. But they’re kind of an ass.
Here’s an example of someone I’ve heard people say that they would never take them seriously again as a representative of atheism – Bill Maher. Because he promotes anti-vaccination claims.
Where do you draw the line and scream out ‘YOU SUCK!’ – or do you do something else?