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The special place of the heckler

Informed opposition is vital to democracy

Wilson

It might have escaped your notice that a heckler interrupted oral arguments at the Supreme Court the other day. He wasn’t the first protester to sneak inside, and he won’t be the last.

The main reason anybody paid attention – and not many did – was that his rant was deleted before the court’s official audio recording of the argument was released to the public.

A handful of bloggers briefly debated the sleepy issue of whether the justices were engaged in censorship before returning to their regular clashes over the great issues of the day.

I am not going to supply any details about the protester’s cause: A surfeit of attention will only breed more silly stunts.

But I do want to take a moment to explain why heckling, for all that it is rude and childish, is often valuable to a democracy – and how, properly understood, heckling could even improve the quality of our discourse.

Let me emphasize: properly understood.

We tend to think of heckling as a loud, angry interruption: House Republican Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during one of President Barack Obama’s speeches to Congress, or Democrats orchestrating the chorus of boos that greeted President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2004. I do my fair share of public speaking, and I have received my fair share of angry interruptions. It’s never pleasant.

But it also isn’t heckling. It’s ordinary rudeness. To elevate it into some precious democratic value merely excuses what is essentially an act of adolescent egoism. (Years ago, when the audience at a talk I was delivering tried to shush a young man who had grabbed the floor, he turned to the group and shouted in fury, “He had his chance! It’s my turn now!”)

To understand what’s good about heckling – and what heckling actually means – let’s begin with a quotation attributed to the politician Tom L. Johnson: “Heckling is the most valuable form of political education.” But Johnson, a Democrat who sat in the House in the late 1890s and was mayor of Cleveland in the first decade of the 20th century, meant by “heckling” something quite different than what we know it as today.

Heckling, he explained in his autobiography “My Story,” referred to the freedom of the audience to interrupt the speaker with thoughtful questions, which the speaker would then answer before returning to his argument. It was give-and-take, not shouting down, that Johnson so fervently supported.

Heckling in this traditional sense implies a kind of public interrogation.

The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way: “To catechize severely, with a view to discover the weak points of the person interrogated. Long applied in Scotland to the public questioning of parliamentary candidates.” Similarly, organizations that follow traditional rules of order understand heckling to mean simply a statement by a speaker who is not entitled to the floor. This, for example, is the meaning of heckling in the British House of Commons.

When Johnson celebrated the virtues of heckling, he meant simply the value of back-and-forth between a speaker and his audience.

He fervently opposed the political set speech, the scripted address in which a candidate or public official spoke for a time and then went on his way. Johnson preferred the tent meeting, the small space, where the audience felt involved.

“The greatest benefit” of these meetings, he wrote, was “the educational influence on the people who compose the audience.” Possibly the audience would wind up opposing the speaker’s position, but the concrete policy result, he contended, was less important than educating the public “never to be indifferent.”

And there’s another potential benefit: Johnson tells the story of a speech he gave that was interrupted by shouts from the audience, demanding that a local activist named Peter Witt be heard. Once he ascertained that a significant minority of those in attendance did indeed want to hear what Witt had to say, Johnson invited him up to share the stage. Although the two of them opposed each other on many a political issue, wrote Johnson, “one of the strongest friendships of my life commenced that night when I welcomed Peter Witt to my platform.”

If you have trouble imagining many of today’s politicians behaving so graciously, that’s our nation’s loss.

And today’s politicians don’t much like small spaces, either. They tend not to like being confronted and criticized and argued with – especially by those whose disagreements with their positions are passionate.

They prefer to speak mainly to those who enthusiastically support them and be buoyed upon waves of adulation.

Thus the urge to heckle (among members of the public, not elected officials) is easily explained as a desperate effort to pierce the political bubble.

But it’s still rude and, as practiced, is highly unlikely to bring fresh converts to the cause.

Before a court – where preserving the bubble actually matters – it’s even worse. Unlike Johnson’s thoughtful listeners, the hecklers of today function mainly to degrade the quality of public discourse.

Perhaps we have grown so narrow-minded, indulgent and shrill that no solution exists. But I’d like to believe that if those elected to serve us spent less time grandstanding for audiences of supporters, and more time in conversation with those who have questions or doubts, the temptation to heckle rudely would be reduced.

The quality of our democracy might even be improved. Goodness knows we can use the help.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”

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