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Monday, September 21, 2009

Speakers' Corner, Long Beach?

At times you feel you are in a Monty Python skit as the speaker with the Olive Oil Party sign made at home argues with the member of the small crowd about butter and its place in cooking. Or the small man in the bowler who just wants an argument, is simple contradiction an argument? No it is not. Yes it is. Is not. Is too.....

One of the highlights of my semester at the University of London in 1982 were the Sundays when some of the mates and I would jump on the tube and head down to Hyde's Park to listen to and engage the various speakers who set up on their little boxes, ladders or for one frequenter a set of U.S. History books (he was no fan of President Reagan). The only rules it seems are no profanity and no physical contact, other than that the British have quite a go on all manner of subjects. From religion to communism to olive oil to you pick the topic, ordinary and extra-ordinary men and women set up in what is known as Speakers' Corner and begin to speak, debate, cajole, heckle and engage passer's by. Many a barrister got his start by arguing on a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park. Many an argument has gone down in flames because a more informed or loquacious heckler has brought a speaker to tears or exasperation as they jam their sign in a rubbish bin and skitter off to the Underground.

Speakers' Corner is a beautiful example of not only Free Speech, but also public dialogue and the ability of citizens, ordinary citizens, to discuss important issues. Sure there is some shouting from time to time depending on the subject and the presentation by the speaker--or emotions of a heckler in the crowd. Note that in London almost anyone who engages the speaker is referred to as a "heckler", many are very polite, astute and engage in a very healthy debate with the speakers; there are those however who are also louts and just shouting to shout.

Speakers' Corner is entirely open, anyone with a cause or an idea can simply start talking. If you are good enough, or your subject is intriguing enough a few people will stop to listen, then if you are able to hold them more of a small crowd will form. The very good speakers will have a crowd of fifteen or more, engaging them, answering their questions and heckles, having them laughing or shouting in agreement or disagreement with either himself or one of his hecklers. There is no formal format, no sign up list, no schedule. If you have something you wish to tell the people, or discuss with them, simply start talking.

Much has been made of the lack of "civility" in our public debates. Name calling, finger pointing, shouting, huge crowds chanting, make the news and make many upset--who is upset usually depends on whether they agree or disagree with those shouting, name calling, finger pointing.... Our pubic discourse on issues, important or not, has become more widespread than it was when I was in college in the early 1980's. Now we have endless news channels, a whole dial seemingly for the sole purpose of talk radio with Joe, a first time caller from Lompoc, and of course the world wide web where any Dennis with a keyboard can set up his own area to express opinions.

We have significant dialogue on issues, some of the dialogue makes many uncomfortable however because of what is expressed and how it is expressed. Accusations and name calling abounds on talk shows and blogs and in crowds. But almost all of it is anonymous. It is Joe from Lompoc or literally Anonymous, making the call or posting the comments on a website. Visit some of the major sites that daily deal with many different issues from different writers, Salon, Powerline, Little Green Footballs, Politico, and you will see hundreds of comments daily from those using pseudonyms making some of the most offense comments. Legal? Sure most of the time as long as they are not threatening someones life or inciting someone to violence. Adding to the debate? Not usually.

What if were were to have more debate? What if in Long Beach, or Reno, or Tulsa, or Boston, or where ever you are reading this blog, we had our own Speakers' Corner? What if instead of waiting for a local group to have an "evening of discussion" and hand picking the speakers on a topic we had a regular time and place where any of the issues affecting us could be debated and discussed, and argued? Would it raise the level of discourse and debate? Does having to come face to face, without a mob, to discuss an issue between two ordinary citizens, neither with a position of power over the other, bring the level and tone to more civil levels? Sure there will be emotion and some heated debate, but also there will be social intercourse between neighbors, members of the same community, foes who may become friends despite their disagreements.

Speakers' Corner has been going for over 150 years, it is part of the fabric and culture of London. Sure it has its fair share of kooks and firebrands, it is heavily populated, in my humble opinion, by fringe elements, and its fair share of regulars who are like the Energizer Bunny and are easy to ignore. But from week to week it has someone new, someone just there to talk and discuss an issue that day or for several weeks depending on the life of the issue. And regular, ordinary people discuss an issue. Because it is also a tourist attraction there are those who are there to be seen and to be part of the show, but inside and in some corners are those more serious and able to engage others. Sometimes the discussions amongst the crowd become better than what the speaker was saying, I've seen good speakers wander into the crowd and mediate such conversations. In the end the purpose of the place is public discourse, free speech and a civil environment in which to have it.

What do you say? Open public speaking, no rules except no profanity, no inciting to violence and no physical altercations. One hopes a universal rule of respect would prevail, but depending on the topic and the presentation one can hope but that does not mean it will always come to pass.

Is there a place in a modern American city with a myriad of ideas and opinions and a similar myriad of people from different backgrounds, ethnicity's, and religions to have open public discussions without formal direction or structure?


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