We know the subject of Boyd's talk. But what was the object?
Despite all the discussion, calls for apologies and outrage over this episode, I've yet to see observers pick up on an important point that Boyd herself makes: Some of the comments broadcast on Twitter by some of her audience members were objectifying and sexual in nature. Here's what she said:
I would *NEVER* have given my talk on race and class in such a setting. I shudder to think about how the racist language people used when I gave that talk would've been perceived on the big screen. Speaking of which...what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry....I don't want to be objectified when I'm speaking - either as a talking head or a sexual toy. I want to inspire, to invite you to think, to spark creative thoughts in your head.Told you she was unflinching.
Unfortunately, I can't pull up the offensive tweets to show you,
I'll leave it to the psychoanalysts, attorneys and academics to analyze whether the sexual comments from the audience, broadcast as they were online and to the attendees in the room, constituted narcissism, slander, hate speech or all three. For me, the episode throws into high relief an issue about women and public speaking that generally goes undiscussed, as it has in the hundreds of reflections on this conference: Public speaking is uncomfortable for many women because they sense (or know from experience) that they'll be seen as sexual objects, and it's considered acceptable to treat them that way, in part, because they've put themselves forward as speakers.
Talk about discouraging women to speak. In 2009, we're seeing yet again an issue that has plagued women speakers since the days of ancient Greece and Rome: Attempting to silence women by treating them as sexual objects (or hysterics, or other negatives). This chapter in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's excellent book Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking discusses this topic in detail, but the chapter's first lines sum it up: "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet." If you want to understand the spotty and difficult history of women and public speaking, that chapter's an excellent short course.
Danah Boyd herself was the object in her talk, for some men in her audience. Not a researcher, not a colleague, but an object.
The silence around this issue is all the more striking because this Web 2.0 Expo experience gives us two unique windows into the minds of the speaker and the audience. If the Twitter feed weren't public, those crude thoughts would've been known only by those thinking them--and the speaker would have had nothing to react to in her blog post. In a way, I'm grateful for this public meltdown, because it lets us put this common but undiscussed issue on the table, where women can face it and, perhaps, deal with it. I don't think we can change people's thoughts, by a long shot. But we need to be willing to talk about the issue. If we don't, it will remain one of those vague reasons women feel uncomfortable about public speaking, but aren't sure why. In fact, if the offensive tweets are removed, as they might well be, Boyd's willingness to write about them could be the only record we have--underscoring the importance of making these issues public.
And for those reading this who wonder, "Is this really a problem? I've never experienced it," let me just say that this blog--which aims to offer good advice and information to all speakers, male or female--came about because of the number of women who come to me for training saying things like, "They told me my presentations aren't sexy enough," or "My boss thinks I should wear skirts when I'm making a presentation or a speech." And that's in the 21st century. It's not the only gender issue women face in speaking, but it's a major one.
Kudos to Boyd, not just for her excellent research, but her willingness to speak frankly, allowing us to have a discussion. Please share your thoughts and additional information about this episode, or what you've experienced directly, in the comments.
Related posts: Twitter backchannel: Danah Boyd's take
New ebook on presenting with Twitter
Tweeting at meetings gets controversial
Speakers: Learn from Twitter hecklers
5 ways to find out about your audience
Find out more about women's issues in public speaking on The Eloquent Woman blog
Find out more about my workshops and one-on-one speaker coaching services
Become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook