Applause

Applause

I once gave a lecture in Finland on externalism and twin earth cases. At the end there was a very brief burst of applause, lasting no more than two seconds. Afterwards I said to my Finnish friend Esa Saarinen that they must not have liked it much given the brevity of the response. On the contrary, he replied, Finnish academics never applaud at the end of a lecture and this was the first time he had seen it happen in the Helsinki philosophy department; I should be flattered. Funny, I thought. Last night I was watching Bill Maher on HBO and found myself constantly irritated by the applause (from an American audience): it interrupted the flow of the conversation, was too prolonged, and too self-congratulatory. It also reduced a serious discussion to a branch of show business—the audience was enjoying the performance. Surely the expression of a moral position on a serious matter should not be greeted with clapping. No one should be applauded for stating the moral truth as they see it. Of course, in America everything is showbiz, performance, theater: but really! Should I be applauded for expressing my opposition to capital punishment or my belief in animal rights? I am not trying to entertain (that is not the illocutionary force of my speech acts). So, when is it right to applaud, and when is it wrong? The ethics of applause has not, I believe, been explored in moral philosophy, but someone has to do it.

A strict view (call it the Finnish doctrine) is that applause is only proper at theatrical performances–operas, concerts, plays, ballets, and the like. It is not proper at scientific conferences, philosophy talks, political speeches, commencement addresses, and the like. At such events, the intention is to convey truth, impart knowledge, not to entertain or amuse; they are not performances for which the performer should be congratulated. No one thinks that when a doctor gives a diagnosis, or a lawyer a legal opinion, they should be applauded. I think there is a lot to be said for the Finnish doctrine; I also think the Finnish preference for brevity is to be recommended. Nodding is fine in other contexts, or facial expressions of appreciation, but not this wretched clapping of the hands—so loud, so raucous. However, we might make an exception for things like graduation ceremonies and athletic victories—here we might allow some of that “putting your hands together”. Graduating, like singing an aria, is a type of achievement, unlike arguing a philosophical thesis or offering a moral judgement. I like the idea of telling someone you think they gave a good paper, but not slapping your hands together as if he or she just performed a double somersault. It’s debasing, levelling. We must resist the urge to reduce everything to a form of entertainment. The Finnish doctrine embodies this resistance: not all types of appreciation must take the form of that appropriate to an opera or rock concert. My own feeling is that ballet most warrants the response of applause, because of the degree of discipline and achievement that goes into it, closely followed by opera, then drum solos. It should be kept out of intellectual contexts or acceptance speeches or psychotherapy sessions.

One thing about applause that is deeply suspicious is that it is itself a type of performance for which applause might be appropriate. I applaud your applause for its vigor, loudness, sincerity, etc.—and you might in turn applaud my applause for your applause. I suspect this is what is going on with Bill Maher’s audience: they want to be applauded for their good judgment, right-thinking, and sheer loudness. People who applaud at ballet performances for minutes on end, till their palms are red and sore, are like this—look at my excellent taste! I think ten seconds is good enough for a sterling ballet dance. Whooping is the worst: what a dismal performance that is! So, don’t draw attention to yourself when you applaud—don’t perform the act of applauding. And don’t applaud at all if you don’t feel it: when deeply moved by an artistic work (e.g., a Shakespearean tragedy) clapping your hands together may be the last thing you want to do (the noise, the percussive blows). Applause has gotten out of hand; it needs to be handled more discreetly. I actually would like to see Finnish austerity extended across the board, at least for a period of time—no applause for anything, just inner appreciation. The performers could be apprised of this new policy and not take it amiss, relishing those appreciative looks and admiring whispers; there is really no need for all that routine racket and hand spanking. Isn’t it really a paltry substitute for genuine feeling, reflection, thought? Instead of quietly taking in what we have just witnessed, we launch into a frenzied cacophony. Why is that a good idea?[1]

[1] When I used to give papers, I would often be confronted with a wall of applause, quite long-lasting. I would think, “Yes, but did you agree with it?” In earlier years I used to perform drum solos and felt no dissonance at the applause (applause is a bit like drumming).

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4 replies
  1. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    Being applauded is wonderful. Applauding is a bit tiresome. At first I want to show my gratitude at what was an excellent performance etc, but then it becomes a question of when I can safely stop ( Kim Jong Un’s hench-people must have a agonising time getting the balance just right).
    Worse still are encores – I’m expected to keep clapping so the performer comes back out and plays some more (despite the fact that I’m usually in agony after 2 hours stuck in a chair). There’s definitely an art to clapping just enough to make other audience members think you’re doing your bit, but just managing falling short of the necessary encouragement that would persuade the performer back onto the stage – for another excruciating 20mins. Do philosophers do encores?

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  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    More likely they’ve been outwitted. Nobody in the audience wants to be out in the open / exposed.

    The North Korean example might, at first, suggest that being last to stop clapping would be a wise tactic. However I think it’s a very high risk strategy.

    At the very least, Dear-Leader might think you incompetent for being so easily outplayed by your hench colleagues. Worse – you might end up looking insincere. Worse still – your over enthusiasm for whatever hare-brained scheme that comes out of Dear-Leader’s mouth, may associate you with that particular policy in his mind. When that policy eventually manifests itself as the cataclysmic balls-up it had always aspired to be – dear-leader will need a fall guy (lest he himself ends up looking like a mere twit) and you’ll be invited down to the basement to select your own personal land-mine.

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