A lifelong political activist whose ideas I’ve read and whose mind I respect is angry that the Bernie Sanders campaign has figured out how to deal with hecklers. When Sanders is giving a speech and hecklers start chanting, “Black Lives Matter,” Sanders backers are instructed to overwhelm the hecklers by chanting, “We Stand Together.”
“Maddening,” says our activist on Facebook. “All hecklers want is a voice and the issues prioritized. Shouting down is making them voiceless. That is the real message.”
I have a bias for protest, for civil disobedience, for disruption. But I’ve also devoted my limited intellect to communication. So naturally, it hurts my heart when someone is attempting to get an idea across, and someone else blots the first communication out and renders the entire communication event a nullity.
Not long ago a friend of mine, the principal of a charter school, addressed an angry crowd on Chicago’s desperately poor and forever-neglected West Side. My 11-year-old daughter Scout was there, and was aghast when the principal was shouted down in the middle of her passionate speech—she was asking for the use, by her school, of a public school building emptied by controversial mayoral closings—by a man in the front row, shouting, “No charter schools! No charter schools!”
Scout’s jaw fell. “That is so rude!” she whispered to me, round-eyed. Driving home, I carefully explained to her that this is a community where people feel that things are being done to them not for them, that they don’t have any influence and that people in power don’t listen to them. So why should they sit quietly and listen to people in power tell them how it’s going to be?
I have no answer, except to say that I don’t think hecklers generally achieve much, except to make the people they heckle even less likely to bother attempting to communicate directly with them. I don’t think hecklers really get much of a “voice,” because all heckling sounds the same, and might as well be an air horn.
And I don’t think heckling reprioritizes the issues. At best, it may alert some people to the idea that there are people who think, for instance, that George W. Bush or Barack Obama is a baby killer. But if you didn’t know in the first place that people felt that way, you’re probably not inclined to read further, because you never were a big reader in the first place.
Mostly, heckling just makes everyone embarrassed and sad, that people feel desperate or disrespectful enough to vandalize a community gathering, and destroy an attempt at communication.
And as for a heckler objecting to being shouted down—to being heckled back—well, I’m just not sure that argument even holds together in the breeze.
I’ll send this in response to the activist’s Facebook post and she if she takes up the argument. And I will not heckle her if she does.