The ventriloquist is an entertainer whose performance involves throwing their voice so that it appears to come from another source, like a puppet. Think Jeff Dunham.
The stage actor is an entertainer whose performance includes conducting conversations with peers on stage but projecting those conversations out into the theater audience. Think Shakespeare.
And then there’s the public communicator, a person whose aim isn’t to entertain at all, and whose actual audience may not be obvious either.
As Dr. Katharine Hayhoe explains in a talk with the Citizens Climate Lobby, sometimes the public conversations we have aren’t for the benefit of the people we’re ostensibly talking to.
Sometimes these conversations are for the people watching quietly, people who may never themselves speak publicly but who are engaged with the issues nevertheless. They’re open to interaction, willing to seek common ground where our values intersect, and merit even indirect dialogue as much as the people who prefer confrontational debates.
The filmed dialogue Enough Room at the Table is a good example of how this indirect communication can work.
Thirteen people gathered one weekend far from home to talk amongst ourselves and learn from each other about each other. We also gathered that weekend to talk to the audiences who watch our film, and to demonstrate in their asynchronous presence what quality dialogue can look like.
In the era of “fair and balanced” public conversations, moderators often set “both sides” of a question against each other as if they were peers. We’ve let this model of discourse loose on network news broadcasting for the last 60 years, current US election coverage is every bit a part of it, and we aren’t better informed or more socially cohesive for its influence.
What made Enough Room at the Table work as a conversation, filmed or not, was that it didn’t insist on the common foundation of false parity. It didn’t assume that all approaches to marginalized people are equal. We acknowledged that some approaches have caused and continue to cause harm, and we didn’t make room for the “freedom” to disparage or personally attack participants that’s so often accommodated elsewhere in the public sphere.
That made some parts of the conversation super awkward, and yet I thought that was just right: when we understand and accept the value of the people we speak with, we should wrestle with our customary words. We should hold conversation space as if it were sacred. Because it is. And the stakes are high.
When we throw our voices in this way, sharing what’s real and good with each other and with audiences we may never meet, we might be performing roles like ventriloquists and thespians, but we’re also helping our wider society to practice conversation beyond fruitless agonistic debate.
Even if the results are far less entertaining, they just might also be that much more whole. And that makes it worth it.