Some decades since, when my workplace was trying to familiarize us with using computers at work, in a weak moment one of the head honchos requested that we surf the internet for a while each day to find out what useful treasures were available to us. Among many other things, I quickly discovered that this was a world which was powered by inscrutable acronyms. And so it came to pass that one day I innocently asked somebody what the deuce ‘FAQ’ stood for. I was misinformed.
I now see that what ‘FAQ’ stands for is F’n A-hole Questioners, and that they’ve been around for a lot longer than the Internet. The first sample of the species that I collected was at a professional conference in the early days of my career. I had been enduring a mildly (very mildly) interesting panel on the censorship of rock and rap music. About the time the line at the mic for questions was petering out, a callow youth gained control of the coveted instrument and gee-whizzed, aw-shucksed, and giggled his way through a monologue about how wonderful the session had been, how wonderful we all were, how wonderful he was, and how wonderful it was that he had received a scholarship to be here, and how wonderful it was that he wasn’t going to take up all our time by asking a question. At some point, the audience rewarded him by applauding—whether from a hope that it would shut him up, or because they were actually even stupider than the kid, I’ve never known, but I did realize that maybe I didn’t have to go to so many professional conferences.
His race endures, though. Once upon a time, I got the chance to hear America’s foremost public intellectual, Neil deGrasse Tyson, speak. To say that his speech was well-received would be an understatement; our young moderator was booed off the stage when he tried to end the speech when the time allotted for it was up. Then came Q&A, and I knew that we were doomed to the appearance of an FAQ. This particular woman was aggrieved that society was trying to place obstacles in the way of her brilliant nine-year-old’s ambitionto become a scientist, and though she appreciated that Dr. Tyson was not one of those people, he surely could assure us of the fact by saying something which would encourage her in the face of an uncaring universe. Except I’m saying in one sentence what took her so long to say that she still had the floor by the time I had gotten into the very long line of refugees from the tirade and inched my way to the back door of a very large hotel conference assembly room from my seat in the fifth row. For all I know she may be speaking yet, if they haven’t had to clean the room, though I believe that Dr. Tyson escaped, because I’ve seen him on television since. We the audience were left to remember a pleasant evening with the unpleasant aftertaste of anticlimax at best, annoyance at worst.
Another scientist I got to hear speak who fared a little better was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. If there were any FAQs there, I don’t remember them, perhaps because of a relatively sensible moderator who was fond of interjecting “Questions end with a question mark” into some of the more convoluted remarks, more probably because Dawkins is a rather testier sort than Tyson. On the other hand, it eventually seemed as though everyone was pretty much asking the same two or three questions, so I was relieved, and I think Dawkins may have been too, when the last guy in line asked him what his favorite foods were. It’s the only answer, and certainly the only question, that I remember from the whole night.
I’ll never get to set up an agenda for a public speaker, but you may, and I hope that when I show up, you’ve invited the audience to present written questions to a moderator who will screen them and bin the ones who are asking Margaret Atwood how she thinks their nephew could get into UCLA.