So when I was on Al Jazeera English this afternoon talking about trigger warnings (link coming soon), they played a clip of someone mocking Britain’s National Union of Students’ Women’s Campaign for requesting that delegates use “feminist jazz hands” instead of applause on the plenary floor at a conference this spring. I talked about this on Twitter when it happened, but never got around to writing it up, and since I didn’t get the chance to chime in on the show, I’ll take a moment to do it now.
I think using “jazz hands” instead of clapping at a conference is a great policy. Here’s why.
I’ve participated in, and chaired, a lot of big student meetings. They can be hugely intimidating for people who aren’t used to public speaking. However old you are, whatever background you come from, it can be terrifying to get up and speak in front of hundreds of people. And that’s particularly true if — as at a national activist conference — what you’re going to be saying is likely to be contentious, or deeply personal, or complex.
Because of this, every deliberative body has rules of protocol. Often they ban outbursts — either positive or negative — from the floor while someone is speaking. That’s not new, or weird.
But jazz hands instead of clapping? That’s weird, right?
Nope. I’ve seen it plenty of times before, and with good reason.
Applause can drown out the speaker, particularly in a big room. It also slows everything down, dragging out the proceedings and gumming up the works. Beyond that, even positive feedback from an audience can be distracting, even disconcerting. It’s easy to lose your train of thought if people start clapping when you’re not expecting it. (I speak in public for a living, and I have for decades, and I still sometimes get thrown off by applause.)
Also, just as booing or hissing or other negative responses can make people less likely to speak up in the future, cheering or clapping for one speaker can discourage others from disagreeing. And it’s not even necessarily about fear — you may decide the body has its mind made up, so you don’t say the thing that could in reality make them reconsider.
For all of these reasons, my personal preference when chairing a plenary is that all audible expressions of support or opposition to speakers be disallowed. It makes meetings run far more smoothly and quickly, and encourages the kind of engaged, robust deliberation you’re looking for.
So yeah. It’s easy to mock wacky feminist students and their wacky feminist ways. Always has been, always will be. But this time the wacky feminists were right and their mockers were (and are) wrong.