Saturday, November 5, 2011

Great speeches: The generosity of Terry Tempest Williams

I've heard four great speeches in the past two weeks--three of them at the  Federation of State Humanities Council conference that concluded this evening. The speech and its classroom cognate the lecture, have settled into a period of disrepute, and rightly so.  Speeches are often given without regard to the audience, and without concern for the learning of the people present.  At many events they are simply an opportunity for someone who is rightly famous for something else to remind us why they are not famous for speaking. (Think, for example, of every awards ceremony you have ever seen on television.)

But done well, a speech is powerful.  More than many "active learning" pedagogies, speeches have the power to convey an emotion that advances an argument.  The activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams does this better than most, using generosity to buttress her view that the only viable future is one based on empathy between humans, other species, and the planet.

Generosity shaped her Federation speech in three ways.  First, while her speech included portions of stories she has told many times before, it was clearly assembled during the first day of the conference, and reflected the discussions, concerns, and hopes of the conference.  This meant the speech was ragged, but it also demonstrated Williams' humility and concern for the well-being of the event and its attendees.  Second, she made sure to acknowledge and thank more than a dozen members of the conference audience with whom she had spoken briefly.  The thanks did not come at the beginning, as they do in the ritualized awards ceremony  speech.  Instead they were sprinkled throughout the speech, and used as supporting evidence for her thesis that active citizens can influence the direction of society for good.  Third, she gave a gift to each member of the audience--a lily bulb to symbolize that love for living things could return humans to right relationships with nature and each other.

I've met Williams several times (she is a Utahn).  Generosity is essential to her nature.  And so the gestures in her speech, which might seem disingenuous coming from other speakers, are natural coming from her.

Generosity is particularly powerful against the dogmatic friends and foes of environmentalism.  It reminds supporters that dogmatic positions are inhumane because they lack generosity.  And it demonstrates to dogmatic opponents that environmentalists can love people as much as they love the land. In both of these acts Williams' generosity makes deeper engagement possible. Put another way, small acts make a passive genre--the speech--into a spur to activity and learning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece! Often your writing purports to be about one topic, while it really is about something else. Not sure that it is entirely intentional, but I like it.