Saturday, August 08, 2009

Angry Shout-Downs: A Defense (Sort of)

So what about those angry citizens shouting down those congresspersons? Some liberal commentators are very concerned that these lawmakers did not get a chance to express their views as citizens. Treating them that way is downright un-American.

I am deeply conflicted about it, myself. On the one hand I know I would have joined in the enraged shouting when Arlen Spector said "We have to make judgments very fast" (scroll to 1:40, above).

On the other hand, I have a long-time commitment to freedom of speech and really don't like crowds drowning speakers out. There is an idea in the free speech literature, "the heckler's veto" which can be interpreted as placing the act of shouting pe0ple down in the same category as silencing them through violence and threats of violence.

Actually, I think these two sorts of behavior are not morally equivalent at all. Physical battery is a violation the rights of the speaker. They have a right against being physically attacked. But since they don't own the air that transmits your voice, your shouting at a speaker does not violate their rights in the same immediate sort of way.

The principle of the heckler's veto rests on a weaker basis than the absolute rights of the speaker: it rests on the value of the discussion itself and a soft duty all participants have to restrain themselves in ways that makes the discussion possible. Excessive heckling puts an end to the discussion. That is why it is bad. Ordinarily.

However, like all the rules that make civilized interaction possible, this principle is only obligatory if the other guy is following it. This is even true of the proscription on violence. You must not hit people. But what if the other guy is hitting you, or is preparing to hit you?

Now notice that these lawmakers have not done their part to maintain the discussion. Since passing TARP over strong voter objections in October, these people have repeatedly refused to listen to us. The Democrats' original plan to shove health care "reform" through before the August recess was intended to shut the public out of any meaningful discussion. It had absolutely no other point, purpose, or function.

These speakers are only coming to these town hall meetings with their patronizing talking points because their attempts to end the conversation failed. This is the context that the liberal commentators are missing. After all, they are not the ones who have been shut out of the process.

For the moment, these voters do not owe their masters in Washington a duty of self-restraint. And they should let them know they are angry about being ignored. It looks like booing and heckling have been pretty effective ways to do that.

On the other hand, now that they have made their point, maybe it's time to be civil and wait for their turn to speak.

Added later: The argument that I am answering here, based on the value of civility and self-restraint, is actually not typical of the commentary that I have heard from Democrats and liberals. Most of it has been much sillier: eg., dismissing the anger of this people as "manufactured," "astroturf [as opposed to grass roots]," or "scripted" -- or even, bizarrely, describing the shouters as "too well dressed" and as "carrying swastikas." I'm afraid I can't take that sort of commentary seriously.


Anonymous said...

Well said, but I've got to add that these are "town hall meetings" in a pig's eye. This unfortunate form of political communication has been one-way and top-down from the get-go; there's nothing either republican or democratic about it, other than the peristyle seating.

In comparison to more genuine free-speech venues, you might as well look at the jeering and catcalls as a kind of blue collared choral wail to the proscenium pronouncements handed down, ex machina, to us hoi polloi.

Lester Hunt said...

To continue your porcine metaphor, this would mean that the angry shouters have turned a pig's ear into a silk purse: they've use what would ordinarily be a pseudo-forum do some real communicating, and started the whole country talking.