Covid has kept audiences at bay this year. There have been substitutes. The New York Mets had 5000 fan cutouts at their opening game just to the right of home plate. Talent shows are running laugh tracks that only kids who grew up in the 70’s can appreciate. Jumbotrons with a checkerboard of fans applauding just isn’t quite the same as the noise of human hands clapping.
Audiences have been taken for granted. They aren’t considered part of the game, a player in the production, but now that they’re tucked away at home, they are missed. Maybe there’s more to the group of folks that show up, past their ticket buying, and pretzel eating and merch consuming.
Zoom offers a setting for an audience versus an on-line gathering. Today I took a class via Zoom and all I was allowed to do was post in chat, raise a hand or ask a question. The moderator was a gatekeeper saying yay or nay to who got an open mike.
Agnes Callard is a philosopher at the University of Chicago and is on a mission to bring the public back into her field of study. She wants your attention, she wants your engagement, and she wants you to listen. In this recent article run in the NYT, she talks to you –the reader– directly. She challenges her audience not to pre-screen her, not be that moderator who keeps her mike muted when they don’t quite get her and what she is all about.
You are so busy trying to answer this question — trying to serve as judge in the pain/suffering/disadvantage Olympics — that you cannot hear anything I am trying to tell you. And that means I can’t talk to you. No one can sincerely assert words whose meaning she knows will be garbled by the lexicon of her interlocutor. I don’t want privacy, but you’ve forced it onto me.
She counts on you to be her interlocutor, to provide her with a venue to continue her discovery of the truth and the fulfilment of her life.
Isn’t that what the audience at a high school graduation is meant to do? While they listen to pomp and circumstance as the graduates make their way to the podium to receive their diplomas– isn’t the audience saying, “Hey, you did great! You made it this far, we’ll be there with you as you continue this journey.”? It seems like there used to be more of such events, more baptisms, confirmations, more 50th wedding anniversaries. More opportunities to stand behind a couple and as a community say we are behind you; we are here to remind you of the good times so you can endure the hard times; we are here to cook for you when you cannot do for yourself; we are here to be your neighbor.
The audience taking in the Thai boxers sometimes in the ’60’s knows what to do. They watch, they cheer, they make signs of encouragement or reproach towards the refs. You see, the audience is very much a player in all we do. They observe and filter in mitigating ways, they support or fail to show, they filter through all those social cues so we can gradually moderate our behavior. So we can continue to process where and how to spend our time without everything escalating into a protest.
Audiences need a refresher course on how to do their job, and Zoom doesn’t offer it.