The three-wattled bellbird has a call audible to humans up to half a mile away; it lives primarily in Central America, and from the base of its beak protrude three long worm-like tendrils. Most, if given the choice, do not surround themselves with three-wattled bellbirds in part because they are very secretive, and in part, because they make for lousy pets. The megaphone shout of the three-wattled bellbird is not something anyone wants to come home to. Instead, people buy parrots, parakeets, pigeons, birds that may still be loud, but they aren’t absolutely painful to be around. When you’re half a mile from a pigeon, there’s not a chance you’ll hear that thing coo. It is not that nobody wants a bird for a pet, it’s that nobody wants a bird that’ll blast your eardrums while you’re in the shower because it thinks your towel looks like something it could make a baby with.
When we think about the difference between three-wattled bellbirds and parrots, we can also think about the difference between screaming and talking, between rage and dialogue. A man came to NAU recently, and he conducted himself like a three-wattled bellbird. He did not speak to students, he yelled at them. He did not discuss his ideas, but he loudly condemned the students who didn’t agree with them.
It’s important to say that it is not the ideas that made this man’s actions reprehensible, and it doesn’t matter if I disagree with him. It is not the ideas that made his presence toxic, it was how he presented those ideas, and he presented them as if there was no alternative.
He stood outside one of the more popular locations on campus and yelled to crowds passing by that they were doomed to hell, that what they believed made their lives worthless, that they would be judged and deemed unworthy. He was a three-wattled bellbird when he could have just as easily been a pigeon. He was loud, angry, and invited no discussion. When people say college students are afraid of dissenting opinions, they tend to ignore the fact that every side has people afraid of disagreement. When this angry man screamed at students, some students screamed back. We’ve got bellbirds on all sides. However, other students tried to talk to them, and they were met with the same hate and noise every other student had been attacked with. The bellbird can be heard from a great distance, and though being loud is great for getting your message heard, it is not so useful for discussion. Imagine you’re in court, and when it is finally your chance to present your case, the opposition screams “criminal!” any time you say a word. You’d get frustrated with the other side pretty quickly, not only because they think you’re a criminal, but because they aren’t letting you present your side. Instead, they just keep yelling.
So it isn’t that this man came to NAU to tell students their lives aren’t worth living. It isn’t that he disagreed with the students and believed they were too weak to accept that anyone believed something they didn’t. It’s that he came to campus, screamed his condemnations, and refused to acknowledge anyone who didn’t agree with him.
A natural counterpoint to all of this is that “in the real world” people will yell, they will scream, and they will be angry. A natural counter to that counter is that those yelling people are idiots who are so caught up in their own opinion that they refuse to acknowledge anyone can disagree with them, and disagreement does not doom cooperation, but rage does.
So what do you do when bellbird-ing about campuses doesn’t work, when yelling at and raging doesn’t get your point across. Remarkably, students are actually pretty decent listeners. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year just to listen to people, so it makes sense that they’d be pretty good at it.
NAU has been host to a variety of visitors with ideologies they wish to spread. One such man is “Uncle” Don Fanning, a man who passes out stickers with “Peace Please” printed on them, and he talks to any students who want to talk to him. I have never spoken to Don Fanning, and the only reason I know his name is because of this article about him from 2003. The difference between Fanning and the yelling man is not only their message. One man screams his beliefs at people and the other talks about his perspective to anyone who wants to listen. One is a three-wattled bellbird, heard from a distance and loathed by everyone within half a mile, and the other is an African gray parrot, which are known for being highly intelligent and worthy companions. One is a toxic neighbor, the other is a pleasant friend. The ideas don’t matter, the discussion does. Students do not hate being confronted with ideas that go against what they believe. They hate what everyone hates: being called a criminal and then never allowed a chance to present their side.