30 December 2011

Occupiers, hecklers and the tragedy of the speech commons

Embittered erstwhile Occupiers in Albany continue to make their presence felt more than one week after the city evicted them from Academy Park. While continuing their legal challenge to the injunction that enabled their eviction, they've come in for criticism for one person's posting on Facebook of a "wanted poster" with personal information about the mounted policeman who pepper-sprayed Occupiers on Dec. 22. Yesterday, some members of the media turned on them, as the Times Union reports, when some Occupiers heckled Mayor Jerry Jennings.

Protesters began to shout "shame" until being chastised by a gaggle of news photographers, who noted the occupiers had not been interrupted — except perhaps by the sound of power tools somewhere in the building — during their lengthy press conference, which included a slide show of police moving in to capture their final tent.

The incident reminds me of the time a local Republican leader showed up at Academy Park for a photo op and complained that he couldn't have an actual discussion with the Occupiers, so intent were they on chanting slogans and heckling him. I've always found the resort to chanting among leftist demonstrators annoying, especially when the chanting is employed to drown out a speaker. But I can also understand the frustration that drives them. This nation is dedicated on paper to free speech. It can be argued that Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions dating back to Buckley v. Valeo have effectively commodified political speech, but I want to make a separate point. Many of our American ideas of freedom are based on a premise of infinite resources. Many self-styled libertarians (civil or otherwise) explicitly repudiate a "zero-sum" mentality that links one person's excess to another's deprivation. The realm of public discourse might seem to be one where zero-sum reasoning should not apply; everyone in this country can rant as he or she pleases, unless the ranting threatens the President or persuades theatergoers that the house is on fire. But while all of us can talk, or write, who gets heard or read? Not everyone, obviously --it's physically impossible. Inequality has to be taken into account. Some people can obviously get themselves heard more than others. In some cases, those people are entitled to some degree of precedence because they're elected officials. Others are not elected, but claim entitlement to precedence due to wealth or fame. They have resources for capturing our attention that most people lack. In theory, they have no more freedom of speech than anyone else, but in practice the facts differ. Because everyone's time is limited, the ease with which some people claim our attention causes us to neglect others whose opinions are equally if not more worthy of a hearing. Those who are ignored are presumed to have failed to sell themselves in the marketplace of ideas, while each individual's right to ignore any other individual is upheld as a matter of personal liberty. The situation is not fair and can never be made perfectly fair. Unless we were to absolutely reduce government to the village level, it would be impossible for every citizen in a polity to have equal time and equal attention from every other citizen. Inevitably, some people will earn an entitlement to a respectful hearing, ideally by establishing a reputation for sagacity. But our current social order tends toward the monopolization of attention by elites who have no such reputation, or else flaunt a spurious one. 
Dissidents might be forgiven for believing that some people, including elected officials, take up too much of our time while other opinions, not to mention other facts, need to be heard. A claque of chanting hecklers is unlikely to believe that those who disagree should never be heard; their opinion is more likely that the other side has already been heard from more than enough. That doesn't mean that heckling isn't rude, or that the Albany photographers were wrong to take offense at those who heckled the mayor. Each person has the prerogative to choose between conflicting claims on his attention. A right to be heard may be postulated, and it may even be deemed essential to democracy, but no one can presume a right to succeed in persuading listeners. My point isn't that we all must listen to the Occupiers and heed their advice or do as they demand. But democracy must allow them some leeway to assert the necessity of our listening to them, and when the time that might require seems to be monopolized by the establishment, the assertion -- the conflicting assertions in many cases -- will get messy. Ideally, it gets no more messy than heckling, which is not the same as permanently silencing anybody. A mayor can find another time to be heard easily enough. In any event, such messiness is inevitable wherever and whenever it becomes evident that people are not hearing the whole story about their polity or all sides of the most meaningful issues. It can seem sometimes as if we're not hearing all the choices, or even the original question. In such cases, free speech hasn't been free enough, or it's been too free. Freedom of discourse is what we really want in a democratic republic -- but do we have it when some can expect to be heard all the time and others can expect never to be heard? Democracy may depend on your answer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think people in this country make a big deal out of freedom of speech - which it is, don't get me wrong - but there is also a corollary "Freedom to listen". What I mean is that YOU may be free to say whatever you want, but I, and everyone else, is free to listen, or not, as we decide. The problem is that too many people feel that the only way they have to "not listen" is to drown out the speaker(s) rather than simply walking away.

It seems to me that if the occupiers really want to be listened to, this "chanting/mic check" is NOT going to do it for them. They need to offer entertainment to entice the masses and program the message into the entertainment.