I recently surprised people in my Toastmasters club, as well as myself, by giving a table topic speech about Easter. One of my fellow club members was impressed. He said, “I think it’s great that as a Jewish person, you can give such a positive speech about Easter.” Still, I found it a difficult speech to give. It’s not because I have anything against Easter. In fact, I believe in the importance of respecting other people’s faiths. But ever since an experience at a previous Toastmasters club, I felt uncomfortable about controversial subjects such as religion and politics.
Years ago, I belonged to a successful Toastmasters club. We had a large number of members and had won distinguished club awards and speech contests. Then, a couple joined the club. They were both nice people and accomplished speakers. The problem was that they had strong religious and political beliefs that they spoke about at any opportunity.
Their particular beliefs are not important. In fact, there really isn’t much separating political loudmouths at both extremes of the political spectrum. Both are equally annoying. I find Michael Moore as irritating as Ann Coulter.
That is what happened whenever they spoke. They only spoke about their political and religious beliefs. It was all about why this politician was bad, or why America is going in the wrong direction, and why things would be better if everyone adopted their political and religious views. One topicmaster thought he could get them to loosen up by giving them a zany, humorous question that couldn’t possibly be tied to politics and religion. The husband floundered for a few seconds, but he did find a way to bring the talk back to politics.
Their speeches had a negative effect on the club. People started leaving. Even people who shared their political and religious beliefs got tired of them.
A friend of mine once talked to the couple after a meeting. The couple started talking about me and said, “He’s a really nice guy. It’s a shame that he’s going to hell.” This is because I didn’t belong to the same religion that they did.
Regardless of the tenets of a particular religion or political ideology, it’s dangerous when people condemn others who don’t share their beliefs. This goes beyond expressing oneself and becomes demagoguery. Such talk has no place in Toastmasters.
Around that time, I got a job at a company that had its own Toastmasters club, so I left the club and that couple. After I left, the situation at my old club got so bad that the area governor had to intervene to get the couple to tone down their rhetoric. Eventually, the couple left the club.
Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t the religion and politics that caused the problems with that club. It was the unwillingness to talk about anything but that. It was also the unwillingness to listen, the unwillingness to consider — or at least respect — other viewpoints. More importantly, it was belief that anyone who doesn’t share their viewpoints isn’t merely wrong — they are evil and must be damned.
Clubs can decide not to allow speeches about controversial subjects. This is what happened at the company club I belonged to, and it was a view I once advocated in a letter to Toastmasters magazine. But if a club does decide to venture into the turbulence of religion and politics, it should do so with an atmosphere of respect.