Why society yearns for beautiful voices
15th June 2023
What makes something perfect? Tom Wells argues that society should change its definition of beauty to embrace stammered voices.
Last August I wrote an article for STAMMA about starting university and how I felt about it. Ten months on, I've firmly settled here at the University of Oxford. When I arrived, I listened to an episode of STAMMA's podcast about Freshers Week more than once. It was fun, engaging and informative. Yet, the podcast will probably only be listened to by people who stammer; a huge shame as many could learn from it. In this article, I want to explore a few reasons why this could be the case.
I can almost imagine Ancient Greek philosophers in their robes debating why people are attracted to beautiful things and repulsed by things which are not. It was such an interesting and complex subject that it became known as Aesthetics: the study of the beautiful and the perfect.
Of course, it would be an overstretch to assume that everyone is attracted to and repulsed by the same things. But was there a consensus in society of what people thought was acceptable and what to enjoy? Imagine hearing two pieces of music: one easy on the ear; the other is a piercing, high-pitch noise. Which one would you prefer? I know I would choose the one that sounds nice.
I can begin to deconstruct why people are taught to, initially at least, dislike those who stammer.
Before I turn this into a philosophy essay, I will say that people have been arguing about what makes something 'beautiful' for a long time. Some have argued that beauty lies in the practical use of an object; others say it is from the pleasure we receive from admiring it. As such, the philosopher Aristotle took the latter argument further by suggesting that a flaw in nature was unnatural. He said that if we gain no pleasure from it, there is no point for it to exist. This line of reasoning has created positive advances in the study of music, art, literature and theatre. However, it has also been used to discriminate and prejudice against people who are outside what society constitutes as 'perfect'. Unfortunately, I can see the negative legacy of this thinking when I think about my stammer.
It is not surprising then that 'stammering' has a bad reputation. When I talk to strangers, I see them struggling to listen to my words or awkwardly fidgeting with their hands. Using the above definitions, I can begin to deconstruct why people are taught to, initially at least, dislike those who stammer.
Today, Western consumerism and social media base themselves around perfection. In my previous article, I wrote about how my younger self was annoyed with my voice. Specifically, I gained no pleasure listening to myself or chatting with others. As experience shows, which goes along with Aristotle's theory, I tend to continue actions that bring pleasure to me.
For me, 'perfection' shouldn't be defined as gaining pleasure from something. It should be explained instead as gaining knowledge or wisdom from an object or person.
I'm not going to generalise here, but from personal observations people are drawn to conversations that they find comfortable and pleasing to be in. For me, this often gets hampered when I start to think that my voice is like that high-pitched noise I mentioned. It is this thought process that gets me worried that I'm repulsing people due to how I sound. I've realised this is complete nonsense — and I discuss this in another of my articles 'What do my friends think about my stammer?'. Yet I still feel many stammerers and non-stammerers might still think about social interaction in this way (maybe more so among children, teenagers and young adults).
How can we move past this way of thinking?
So, for the difficult question… how can we change the Aristotelian definition of 'beauty' and 'perfection' to develop inclusivity for those who stammer in the wider community?
For me, 'perfection' shouldn't be defined as gaining pleasure from something. It should be explained instead as gaining knowledge or wisdom from an object or person. For example, if I drew a picture of someone, it would be awful. Although it might not be aesthetically pleasing, people could still get a theme or a message from it. In my opinion, this is the same concept with stammering. A non-stammerer might not gain the same pleasure from my stammer as they would a trained vocal actor; however, the wisdom, knowledge and stories that I can pass on are as important — maybe more so.