It was Friday night at the Writers Weekend. The Speaker was a well-known newspaper columnist and slightly nervous though anyone who’d read his columns knew he’d been a teacher and was used to speaking in front of groups. He didn’t know, he said, what to speak about and he welcomed questions from the floor. I imaged, as I am sure 99% of the audience also imagined, that these would provide a prompt for the famous wit and perspicacity to freely flow and we would have an entertaining evening. What it became was an invitation for a caustic young woman to express strange and unsettling opinions. I thought the first few questions she asked were weird and clearly above my level of education but the Speaker while a bit unsettled, managed a deft parry and things settled down until she interjected with: “You’ve mentioned the word virgin twice now, does that mean you are a virgin?” There was a universal swivelling of heads towards the woman standing alone at the back of the room then back to the Speaker who defected it with a story of losing his virginity that made us all laugh. But it seemed that each time her now more bizarre questions were deflected or ignored, she became more determined to disrupt. Eventually it came down to “I know you taught at that bastion of privileged male patriarchy, Christ’s College…” Her question was drowned out by groans but we could see the end in sight.
“How can you say that? You have no idea what Christ College is,” said the Speaker who was now starting to get angry.
“It’s a privileged male patriarchy!
“You’re right. I dislike all women and brown people,” he said, hoping to shut her down.
The audience laughed but irony was completely lost on the Heckler.
“Did I just hear you say you hate women and brown people?” she responded in amazement as though it were true.
The audience was appalled. Opinions on her rudeness and ignorance were expressed as she vainly fought back. “But he said he hates brown people,” she said clinging to something she considered a truth.
The mele was interrupted. “Excuse me. I’m the brownest person here,” said the wise older woman in the centre of the room. Everyone stopped talking while she charmingly revealed her complicated ethnicity “…and I what I heard, was someone trying to stop you interrupting all the time. If I don’t mind what he said, then neither should you.”
We clapped the wise woman and sighed. Surely the Heckler would leave now. It took another two harsh interruptions before the Speaker, suggested that “With respect,” (something I thought she’d lost a long time ago), “people are in this room to listen to me, not you. You are deliberately interrupting me and I want you to stop.”
She did stop then but she stayed until the end because I don’t think she could bear to back down. But if her objective was to ruin the evening, she succeeded. Every question was about her need, her will versus his, and I wondered during workshops the following day, if there are now a group of people for whom questions are conversation and the idea of paying attention and filling in your deficits later, are foreign. A good question will last. A series of bad questions is heckling and whilst I’m pleased I’ve got a blog out of it, I wish I could’ve made up my mind on the Speaker and the stories he tried to tell, without having to defend him.