For those of you unaware of the horrors perpetrated on society by comedians Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher recently, a quick review: Griffin posted a picture of herself with what appeared to be President Trump’s severed head (the awful image can be seen here), and Maher used the “n-word” (a racial slur which rhymes with “trigger” just in case you’re…um, clueless is the best I can do, sorry) on live TV. Immediately there was media uproar about how these two should be shunned and unemployed. Griffin has been fired from her part-time job on CNN, and many have been vocal in calling for Maher’s Real Time on HBO to be taken off the air. Anderson Cooper denounced Griffin, and Chance the Rapper tweeted that Maher no longer deserved to be heard. In short, many have come out strongly not only against the sins these two committed, but also in favor of banishing them forever.
But not me. I’ve been a fan of Maher’s for his entire fifteen-year run on Real Time and have seen many of his stand-up routines. And based on his history of being progressive in his views (except maybe on Islam), I have no doubt that this slip of the tongue doesn’t represent anything other than a brain fart. I know some might question my right to weigh in on the depth of his mistake, since I am not black, but I do have the right to continue to enjoy his work. Griffin and I do not have as rich a history, but I have laughed at her jokes the few times I have seen her on TV. Don’t let my lack of Griffin exposure fool you, though; she has had a long, very successful career, with movies, television shows, comedy tours, albums, and even a couple of books to her credit (including Emmy and Grammy awards). Griffin’s attempt at political humor with Trump backfired severely, but to me, that doesn’t outweigh her long and steadfast support of LBGT rights over the years. And yeah, I know it doesn’t help my case that both of these people are strident, loud atheists. (Maher made an anti-religion movie in 2008, Religulous (a combination of “religious” and “ridiculous” in case you weren’t immediately offended), and Griffin got in trouble before for her speech upon winning an Emmy in 2007: “Now, look, a lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it Jesus; this award is my God now.”
So conservatives have plenty of reasons to despise this pair: They are the epitome of the anti-Hollywood crowd’s stereotype of the media liberal who flouts traditional Christian values and embraces such supposedly corrupting influences as atheism, gay pride, and transgender bathrooms. If it were up to these two, no baker could refuse to provide a wedding cake for two men who wanted to get married and “In God We Trust” would be removed from our currency. If right-wing conservatives had a “Most-Wanted” list of those they wanted silenced, these two would probably make the top ten, although certainly behind Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon. (Of course, such lists do exist, and the one I found had neither Kathy nor Bill on it, alas. Moore and Sarandon were #2 and #7 respectively.) But Griffin and Maher both apologized admitted they were totally in the wrong for what they did, and promised to do better in the future. Griffin’s press conference came across as self-serving (as well as painfully awkward), and Maher did bristle a time or two when three black guests (on the next Real Time which aired after the n-bomb disaster) chastised him for the severity of his mistake. Neither, however, tried to mitigate the error of what they’d done and both seemed to regret their poor choices.
That, coupled with their history of using some of the exposure their entertainment jobs provide them to do good helps me to stay with them. Yes, they now have more baggage beyond times when I found Griffin mean or Maher condescending, but overall, I think it’s okay to continue to consume their work product. I’m not going to call for their unemployment or boycott their performances. I do understand that some people will choose to do so, but I’d prefer to hate the sin and love the sinner in this case, since I often need similar understanding myself.
My acceptance of Griffin and Maher, despite their mistakes, does help me to understand some of the loyalty Trump voters have exhibited over the past tumultuous two years. He’s your boy, and you’re not going to dump him just because he says a few offensive, sexist, racist, ignorant, false things. That’s really fine, I guess, as long as you don’t attack my morals, patriotism, or whatever other non-related characteristic you can come up with for not being willing to accept those things. I could argue that he commits more such faux pas in a week than Bill or Kathy have in their careers, but let’s ignore sheer numbers of outrageous, inappropriate remarks/actions for the moment. We’ll also disregard the different standards to which leaders of our country should be held as compared to our entertainers—Trump clearly sees himself much more the latter than the former, which is another huge problem for many of us. But we won’t go there just now.
Instead, let’s go back to one of the main reasons I’m forgiving (if that’s the correct term for not hating on and petitioning for public execution of) Griffin and Maher: their good works. They have consistently advocated for positive things for others when they didn’t have to; and they did so when taking stands they didn’t have to (they’re mere comedians, after all) could and did cost them fans/money. How does Trump fare in that comparison?
Horribly, by my estimation, both before and since he’s become President. Clearly, charity and good works had little to do with his life before politics; if there was a buck to be made—be it steaks, wine, hotels, office buildings, casinos, golf courses, or universities—he was more than happy to slap his name on the product, shill for it shamelessly, and then duck responsibility for any debts or blame when those products tanked (or in the case of his university, hurt people). Even the limited charity work he did seemed shrouded in questionable fund usage or significant delays on promised donations. “Giving back” would not be one of the characteristics anyone would have used to describe Trump the businessman.
As President, it’s been even worse in the short time he’s been in office. He’s pulled back on all environmental protections or programs to improve or maintain our environment. Poor people are always the first to suffer from environmental degradation, as those in Flint, Michigan, would be the first to tell you. Trump’s health care proposal would deprive millions of poor people of their insurance; struggling seniors would be especially targeted under the current plan. The travel ban? It’s hard to imagine how the average person would benefit from that which is a direct challenge to many of the foundations of our Constitution. Our police, federal agents, and homeland security agency have done an excellent job of protecting U.S. citizens; that some crazed individuals believe they are committing heroic acts by blowing up innocent people along with themselves has changed how our protectors have to function, and we’re all still wrestling with the best way to protect freedom at the same time we’re providing protection. Plus, the ban will never make it through the courts intact. Trump’s tax code revision (the scant outline of it he has provided thus far, anyway) directs the bulk of its benefits to the rich, hardly the key demographic which won the election for him, nor those who are hurting in today’s economy. And let’s not even delve into the Russian scandals, which might include collusion and obstruction of justice. Outside of saying how wonderfully he’s doing and forcing his cabinet members to praise him effusively, I can’t point to anything that Donald has done at all besides golf, much less acts which would benefit others. Insult, belittle, ridicule, attack, deceive, manipulate, and betray—absolutely. But help, advance, support, or sacrifice for? Not that I’ve ever seen for as long as he’s been in the public eye.
So I will continue to accept Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher into my world, albeit with a heightened awareness that they are fallible humans like all of us who have to accept their own mistakes and eat crow on occasion. Meanwhile, I’ll keep waiting for the President to concede that it was wrong to mock a reporter’s disability, attack the family of a slain American soldier, brag about sexual assault, or bash the London mayor after a terrorist attack. (And we all know this list of Trump outrages barely scratches the surface of the total number for the last year!) And we won’t even get into a further examination of his “Make America Great Again” agenda based on discrimination and fear. You might not agree with me on whether or not Bill and Kathy deserve any slack (which I can completely understand), but I would be fascinated to hear how Trump supporters rationalize his mountain of sins as he continues to spout the most inane covfefe while doing nothing to benefit anyone but himself.
For those of you unaware of the momentous goings on a couple of weeks ago, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championships in Speech were determined on February 19 and 20 in Peoria. Individual winners were crowned in fourteen events, with the Mt. Prospect Knights winning the overall state championship. I know all this because my senior daughter was there and has participated on her high school’s speech team for the past four years.
Speech is one of the more arcane high school activities as it is based on competition, as raw and unvarnished as any football game or volleyball match, coupled with intellectual prowess and acting skills. In a typical speech competition, competitors in each individual event are divided into groups of six to present before a single judge in a high school classroom. Each speaker performs his/her/their (in the case of two-person events like dramatic or humorous duets) piece within a proscribed time limit. The judge scrawls comments on a score sheet and tallies various criteria before, finally and most importantly after all six have presented, ranking them one through six based on the judge’s experience and opinions. This happens three times at most tournaments, after which the top performers, based on the judges’ rankings (those with the lowest scores—if you’ve been ranked first in all your preliminary rounds, you have a score of 3, which is as good as it gets), “break” or move to the finals. (The two-day, larger events will result in your breaking into the semi-finals where more competitors will be culled out before the finals.) After each finals performer has done one last speech, the tournament then culminates with an awards ceremony in front of the assembled teams where medals are presented and an overall team winner is announced. One slight difference for the state meet is that it is held in the Peoria Civic Center, rather than at a high school.
The competitions themselves are unusual by most high school standards: All the teams gather at the host school so that the speeches can begin by 8:00 A.M., typically on a Saturday. In order to get there in time to warm up and establish your home base in the host school’s cafeteria, most teams try to arrive well before eight, which means they must be at their home schools ridiculously early—my daughter had to arrive by 6:00 A.M. for most of her tournaments. But you also should understand that the uniforms for speech events—business formal with blazers and skirts for the girls and vested suits for the boys—aren’t something kids just jump into when they stumble out of bed. Basically, my daughter had to be up by 4:45 A.M. to get her outfit, make-up, and hair (she had to curl it for her first two years) together after which I would drive her to school at 5:45 A.M. so she could give speeches at least three and, if all went well, four times (or double, even triple that when she was entered in multiple events) before she would get back to her school, usually by six or seven that evening.
Then there’s the stress of the competition itself. If you’ve never attended one, they are fascinating and bizarre. All these teenagers dressed like Gordon Gekko or Hillary Clinton are running up and down the halls, clacking away in their dress shoes and heels, pacing back and forth in front of rows of lockers as they quietly go over the rockiest bits of their speech in one last desperate attempt to get it down before they’re in front of a judge. In the competition rooms, everyone sits politely, attentively, and applauds quietly (my daughter was fit to be tied one time when I had the temerity to whistle after her speech). There aren’t usually many, if any observers besides the person evaluating your performance—looking for flaws that will help to make it easier to rank you lower—and the other people competing with you who have a vested interest in your doing poorly. I went to a few of my daughter’s individual event performances, and my wife and I were generally the only “audience” in attendance. Essentially, you perform your speech for a hostile crowd with only the judge being neutral (but extremely judgmental).
Then, there are all the rituals and customs which have evolved over the eons. Despite all the creativity required for the speeches themselves, many aspects of the performances must rigidly conform to standards or established traditions. In one of my daughter’s events, Prose, where the speakers would read famous pieces from a notebook; how one introduces the piece, turns the page, and carefully closes the binder to clasp it to one’s breast all have to be done exactly the same way by each competitor. Her other main event over the years was Original Oratory, where the kids research a topic of their choice and give a persuasive, documented presentation. Again, much originality and individual effort go into the construction of the speech, but its five basic parts—introduction, explanation of problem, causes, solutions, and conclusion—must be delivered from different places in the room: You start in the middle for your intro, move stage right four or five steps for the problem, back to the middle for causes, move four or five steps stage left for the solutions, and then come back to center for the big finish. And, no, you can’t reverse the directions or stand in the same place for two parts of your speech. Or you can, but then you probably won’t break.
And should you be “double entered” (performing in two events), you have to ask permission to leave the room after you have given your speech, and you’d better be sure you say, “Good luck, everybody!” in the properly cheerful (if generally hypocritical) tone of voice.
And like figure skating or gymnastics, the evaluation of your performance is in the hands of a human and is based largely on a subjective opinion of how you did. Yes, anyone can see that you closed your binder correctly or hit the right five spots in the room for the five parts of your speech, but how can you make sure scientifically or objectively that your Original Comedy was the funniest? You can’t cross the finish line first or score the most points in Poetry Reading or Oratorical Declamation. And since each team competing has to supply a certain number of judges for each competition, the expertise and experience of those judges can vary widely, not to mention their attention to detail. One time, my daughter barely missed breaking into the finals in one of her events. On Monday when she got to look at the judges’ sheets, she was shocked to see that on one of her sheets her ranking was sixth, four or five places lower than her other rankings, despite no negative comments or suggestions for improvement. A closer examination of the paper showed that the “6” written in the ranking box on her sheet was in black ink, compared to blue for the comments, and the “6” seemed to be different handwriting from everything else on the page. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that this judge lost track of my daughter’s sheet, ranked the other five kids, turned in the sheets, and when somebody else realized the judge’s oversight, that person just put the only rank left on my daughter’s sheet.
So after reading all of this, you would be forgiven if you thought it absolutely idiotic for any kid to spend hours and hours participating in a highly competitive activity where you get little positive feedback, your efforts are judged by those who sometimes have little understanding of what you do, and you work tirelessly only to have a subjective evaluation dash your hopes of success. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Speech is an amazing learning opportunity for high school kids.
Every extra-curricular activity in high school will provide its participants with some beneficial skills. Teamwork, cooperation, dedication, and responsibility are required for just about anything you might join. That’s why it’s so important and life-altering for all high school students to have at least one or two outside-of-class activities if at all possible. Additionally, extra-curriculars will provide participants with other avenues for specific talents which often have few other outlets and are incredibly meaningful to many kids. Most people understand the physical dedication and athletic skills required of sports, not to mention the renown and even college scholarships sometimes granted to the most talented. In sports, you can also learn about physical fitness and become proficient in a game you can play for the rest of your life (golf and tennis being two like that). Musical, artistic, journalistic, and business interests can be followed in band, chorus, photography, art, newspaper, yearbook, and DECA, to name just a few. And there are more than enough other clubs, activities, and teams to join in most suburban high schools, with all providing participants many positive opportunities. But I believe speech is in a class by itself in the training it provides in dozens of incredibly useful ways that can pay off forever in all facets of a person’s life.
Since “Speech” is its name, you automatically get experience in one of the most difficult activities for the vast majority of people: Public speaking. Whenever surveys are done on the things people fear most, giving a speech ranks near the top every time. Normally rational, intelligent, lucid people often fall to pieces at the prospect of making a presentation to an audience of more than one. Yet, these teenagers are required to memorize seven-minute speeches (When was the last time you had to memorize anything?), knowing that they will be penalized for every slip, stumble, or failure to move in the correct direction at the appropriate time. You think that kid’s gonna have any trouble dazzling a business meeting with the help of notes, PowerPoints, laptops, and projectors? Speech team veterans will understand how to present themselves physically (good posture and eye contact), speak loudly enough for all to hear (to “dominate the room with your voice without yelling” as I would instruct my English class students), have no annoying body movements or gestures, be free of grating vocalized pauses habits (“like,” “ya know,” “okay,” or –my personal demon– “all right?” [For all my projected confidence, my vocalized pause kept betraying my need for understanding and approval. And you didn’t know how psychologically revealing your vocal patterns can be, did you?]), and exude a quiet confidence that will make all believe that in the event of some catastrophe, they would easily be able to rescue everyone, without mussing a single hair.
Speech kids also have to learn how to find good stuff on the internet. For that Original Oratory speech my daughter would write each year, she was required to take a researchable subject; stake a position out with which others could disagree; find support for her position with data, credible experts, and examples; insert an exact quotation or two from those experts into her speech; and organize the essay/speech which would include an introduction that needed to be riveting to a captive audience, clear explanations of all that might be unfamiliar to someone not well-versed in the topic, and end with a rousing call-to-action on whatever issue she had chosen. She would then commit it to memory, practice her movements as she was speaking it, and then rehearse it until she could do it all within the seven-minute time limit, which translates into a speech of three-to-four thousand words. Yeah, that’s a lot to be able to do well, all of which will be useful in college and beyond.
There are many other valuable lessons that speech taught her: Working extremely hard for not much credit or even attention, accepting the unfairness of being ranked on subjective criteria, learning that hard work would often have to be its own reward since the fruits of her labors wouldn’t always result in any immediate pay-offs, and generally having to deal with all those “adult” kinds of issues that competing in a subjective universe teach all grown-ups once they enter the working world. No, that’s not as much fun as hoisting a basketball state championship trophy over your head or getting a standing ovation at the end of a play or recital, but speech kids are primed for success in many ways that are more important, and all of which promote maturity.
So although her season didn’t end the way she wanted, she did get to participate in the only group activity at the state speech tournament (the only time this event is run), Performance in the Round, where a group of kids perform a fifteen minute play. And her group did a phenomenal job, finishing sixth overall after competing in the regional, sectional, and state meets. But long after the excitement over doing so well that Saturday in Peoria has faded—it already pretty much has for her—and for the rest of her life, she will be using the skills she developed during her four years of speech team participation. It is definitely one of the tougher activities for a high school kid, but I know of no other extra-curricular that gives its participants more. And you all will appreciate what speech has done for her as she is brilliantly delivering her seventh State of the Union address, sometime later this century. No, it’s not as glamorous or exciting as many other extra-curricular activities, but every high school freshman should consider going out for speech.