Elliot seeks to create culture of tolerance, consideration

Tamora Rosenbaum

Marc Elliot, 2011 College Speaker of the Year, knows what it’s like to be different. When he was nine years old, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes him to make involuntary motor and vocal tics. Through his book, website, documentary and presentations titled “What Makes You Tic?” Elliot helps people find their own path to tolerance, both for themselves and for others. He shared his story and message at SDSU on Monday, Sept. 17 with a presentation in the Volstorff Ballroom.

Elliot estimates that he has experienced somewhere between 20 to 30 million tics in his lifetime. His tics have included chomping his teeth, shaking his head, barking like a dog and repeating “bad words” and people’s names. He describes Tourette’s as an intense, itch-like sensation that is basically impossible not to scratch. Though he struggled for so many years to live a normal life beyond his involuntary outbursts, he said that he now feels grateful for his experiences.

“One really cool thing about the challenges I’ve faced is that I‘ve had a really different experience in life,” he said. “I had a chance to see what it’s like to be so different from everyone else. One of the most important lessons I learned in the process was the importance of tolerance.”

Over the past four years, Elliot has been going to high schools and colleges both in the U.S. and outside it to talk about tolerance. He shares personal stories and is open about his challenges. He tries to remind his audiences how little we know about each other’s lives and to encourage people to have compassion for others and themselves.

Elliot asked the audience at SDSU to participate in two different activities to make us reflect on our own lives and how we relate to others. First, he had everyone in the room stand up and told us that he gave us permission to tic. He gave us ten seconds to do whatever we wanted: bark like a dog, yell fire, anything not deliberately offensive. Only one person participated, barking like a dog, while the rest of the crowd looked at each other and laughed nervously. After he counted to ten, he let us off the hook and explained.

“I think this is an interesting little social experiment,” Elliot said. “Even though I gave you permission, most of you did not tic. And you had a choice, while in my life and in others’ with Tourette’s, there is no choice.”

He then had us bring to mind a person that we don’t particularly like, that “rubs us the wrong way.” Then, he had us try to imagine what kind of struggles that person could be facing each day that we know nothing about and asked us to reevaluate our assumptions about their life.

This brought Elliot to his main point. He shared a quote attributed to Plato that neatly summarized his overall message: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

He shared several personal experiences where people have reacted negatively or treated him with intolerance in different situations.

“They made assumptions about who I am and what I was doing and that’s perfectly understandable,” he said. “But then, they decided that those assumptions were true, and took actions based on those assumptions.”

Elliot encourages everyone to rethink their first assumptions about others, or to at least not act upon them. His mantra is “live and let live.”

“What if we realized that whatever we’re thinking about that person who is bothering us is just an assumption?” he said. “I don’t know what people are doing, or why. I don’t know what people are thinking. I’ve realized I don’t know anything, so I just try to live and let live.”