Overview:

Heckling is not persuasive. It prevents bad arguments from being exposed. The remedy for bad arguments is civility, nonviolence, and critical thinking.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Civility may seem like a quaint throwback in our current political era. But it is an essential value for those who esteem rationality and nonviolence. Incivility lies on a violent continuum that includes bullying, harassment, and the heckler’s veto. Civility is one of the peaceful virtues, connected with hospitality, generosity, and a spirit of open inquiry.

Disruptive boors make life miserable. This includes activists who exercise the heckler’s veto and undermine public events. In responding to challenges of civility and the heckler’s veto, universities, such as the UC Hastings Law School, are changing their policies to prevent hecklers from silencing speakers. Nadine Strossen, an ACLU attorney, has argued that there is no right to heckle, since it violates the rights of the speaker and the audience. And some commentary is questioning the very notion of free speech. Free speech is a wonderful thing. But it ought to be guided by the virtue of civility.

The pyrrhic victory of the heckler’s veto

A heckler’s veto occurs when a heckler prevents a speaker from making their point. This has become a recurrent problem on college campuses. I witnessed it recently, at an event I helped organize.

As our invited speaker gave her lecture, a heckler shouted and made her way to the front of the room. The speaker tried to be polite and responsive. She even invited the heckler onto the stage. The heckler continued to yell from the stage, preventing the speaker from being heard. The audience turned against the heckler, booing and jeering. And the event was ruined.

In one sense, the heckler won. The speaker was not able to make her point. We might even think that hecklers have a kind of courage. Heckling may be inspired by a vision of civil disobedience or an anarchist ideal of direct action.

But in another sense, the heckler lost. The crowd turned against the heckler. And the audience became even more supportive of the silenced speaker. After the event, most people praised the speaker for her civility and patience. No one praised the heckler. The heckler’s veto results in a pyrrhic victory similar to the Streisand effect. Heckling tends to direct sympathetic attention to the speaker who has been vetoed.

Politics, power, and persuasion

Protesters have employed the heckler’s veto from both the left and the right. Activists on each side feel that they are justified in disrupting speakers they disagree with. But each side ought to consider what things would look like if the shoe were on the other foot.

In the background is a waste of time and energy—of event organizers and audience members hoping to learn something. The audience might even have learned that they disagree with the speaker. But heckling prevents that from happening. And shouting does nothing to change people’s minds. When a speaker is prevented from speaking, the underlying arguments remain unaddressed.

Heckling does violence to the marketplace of ideas. The remedy for speech with which you disagree is better speech. If someone makes a bad argument, respond with a good one. If someone states a falsehood, correct it. Heckling does not show what is wrong with a speaker’s argument; nor does it offer counter-evidence or present truths that could expose a lie.

Heckling—like harassment, bullying, and more overt forms of violence—can serve a political purpose, if we understand politics as the mere assertion of power. The heckler wins in a short-term struggle for power by silencing speech. Terrorism and other forms of violence do the same thing. But in the long run, politics is not only about power. It is also about justification and rational persuasion. Democratic deliberation aims to build consensus through dialogue and critical discussion. For this to work, we need to hear bad arguments as well as good ones.

The nonviolence of civility

In his Autobiography, Gandhi explained, “Experience has taught me that civility is the most difficult part of satyagraha. Civility does not here mean the mere outward gentleness of speech, cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.” The term that Gandhi uses here, satyagraha is the heart of his nonviolent activism. The term can be translated as “truth force.”

With this in mind, we can understand Gandhi’s point about civility. In the long run, the truth is the most powerful political weapon. And it is good for everyone. When bad ideas and lies are exposed, people change their minds. In order to expose fallacious arguments those arguments need to be heard—and responded to civilly, rationally, and nonviolently.

Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy is not focused on quick victories in the short term. Rather, it is aimed at a long run transformation of ideas and institutions. Civility is essential for this process because it is a pre-condition for critical thinking.

The heckler’s zealotry and patient secular hope

Gandhi’s theory is guided by religious faith. Can we adapt this idea for a secular world?

Secular systems are intimately connected to the ideal of democratic deliberation and the value of tolerance. Tolerant principles of freedom of speech allow dumb ideas to be expressed. Such principles may seem to permit heckling. But heckling is not wise. And it is rude to speakers and audience members.

The secular hope is that good arguments will triumph over fallacious ones. But this is a slow process that relies upon the hard work of human reason. Arguments and persuasion take time to develop. And sometimes bad actors and ignorant folks say stupid things. It may take a long time to disabuse people of dumb ideas. And some people may never be persuaded.

Hecklers and other activists are impatient. The heckler’s zealotry is understandable. They want change to happen quickly. And they do not want to hear from those they disagree with. In exercising a heckler’s veto, zealous activists may succeed in effecting a quick change. But this does nothing to advance the long-term effort at persuasion. The art of persuasion is patient, farsighted, and nonviolent. Heckling, bullying, and harassment can have an effect on bodies, events, and institutions. But they have little effect on hearts and minds.

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...