In 2013, Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania in which he condemned the university’s response to the tragic deaths of two 21-year-old student athletes. Both young men committed suicide—the first in 2005, the second in 2010. An autopsy on the 2010 suicide revealed that the student had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease common among former NFL players. Evidence indicates the other student did, as well.
The only known cause of CTE is repeated blows to the head, sometimes called repetitive brain trauma (RBT). Symptoms include difficulty thinking, memory loss, impulsive behavior, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Connecting the dots here isn’t hard. Football contributed to these boys’ deaths. Gladwell called the university negligent and suggested that the audience should boycott the football program.
As you can imagine, not everyone appreciated Gladwell’s call to action and characterization of football as a “violent, stupid game.” One student said he was “disappointed that a speaker would come to the university and suggest that the university did not appropriately handle the death… he brought up someone’s death as a way to bolster his point.” Another player called it “disrespectful not only to the football program, but to the Penn community as a whole,” adding that he was “disheartened to see so many fellow students in the crowd show support” to Gladwell.
Finally, one student said, “[Sometimes] you have to be provocative.”
I have a talk coming up—by far my biggest ever—so I’ve been grappling with this question: When? When is it appropriate to present controversial or unpopular views?
When you speak at an event, you certainly have an obligation to the organizer. The organizer invited you and has a right to approve the subject matter of your talk. Some organizers want to encourage the expression of diverse ideas and waive this right, but they have it nonetheless; they can turn off your microphone and call security whenever they want.
If admission was free, though, do you have any obligation to the audience? Well, no—nothing explicit, anyway. Members of the audience attended of their own free will, paid nothing, and can leave at any time. Still, very few people stand up in front of a group of people in order to be booed or ignored. The entire point of a talk is to connect with the audience. The implicit agreement is that you will prepare thoroughly and present material that you think will resonate with them.
Thus, speakers have to balance obligation to the organizer, desire to be heard, and personal convictions. Maybe this balancing act means presenting an issue as more nuanced than it is or moving the conversation away from a touchy subject. Politicians are masters of this balancing act, minus the “personal convictions” part. ☺
In his talk at Penn, Gladwell addressed a volatile subject, but the stakes were life and death. Do the stakes need to be so high in order to court controversy, or do speakers have a responsibility to address a problem if they believe the audience is ignorant to or in denial of it? If the speaker is respectful and well-researched, can the audience still make a valid complaint? Then again, has validity ever stopped anyone from making a complaint?
My unsatisfying conclusion is that no firm rule exists; speakers have to defer to context. How important is the problem? What percentage of the audience is hostile? Does some history or pattern exist that can reframe the problem? Do current events or location factor in? Is the audience complicit in some way? Too many questions and variables exist for me to make prescriptive statements around the duty of a speaker, but here in 2018, I’m tired of hearing about deep personal convictions, firmly-held beliefs, and conventional wisdom. I want to hear about intellectual humility, open minds, and flexible, research-based opinions.