Question of the Week- 12/16/2015

Dec 15, 2015

Islam critic and human rights activist Maryam Namazie recently was heckled at one British university and had her invitation to speak at another rescinded. In the United States, protesters with Black Lives Matter have shouted down Democratic candidates for president. When, if ever, is heckling a legitimate form of free speech? Are there speakers who are too inflammatory or controversial to speak at universities? Where do you draw the line?
If you would like to submit a Question of the Week (Questions only, please!), please send them to QOTW@www.richarddawkins.net.
The Winner is
Phil.

Runners-up:
MiriamDan.

30 comments on “Question of the Week- 12/16/2015

  • Universities should be places where anyone can speak, and then be calmly rebutted if need be. I attended a scholarly conference at Yale this past summer, as a guest. Two of the speakers were really out there. One claimed that she had proven scientifically that paranormal phenomena are real, and the other decried Westerners’ attempts to end the practice of genital mutilation, which she herself had undergone as a young adult.

    Nobody even bothered to question the first speaker. Sometimes dead silence speaks louder than words. I challenged the second speaker during the question and answer period, pointing out that allowing non-medical personnel to take knives to 11-year-old privates is problematic in any culture. She glared at me, but nobody screamed and yelled, and everyone made their point.

    When there truly is no other forum available, I suppose heckling will at least make the news. But free speech must take precedence over political correctness.

    As the bumper sticker says, “Without freedom of speech, how will we know who the assholes are?”



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  • There is a big difference between heckling – calling out a speaker on some contentious point they are making, or some ridiculous claim, and simply shouting down a speaker to prevent their message being heard by the audience.

    For the former, as a heckler, I would expect reasonable answers when challenging unjustified comments.

    As a speaker I would give short relevant answers to hecklers, which could be a put-downs if the heckling was some irrational or dishonest assertion.

    As a speaker, (say at a conference) if anyone tried to shout me down, I would calmly apologise to the audience for the interruption and increase in volume, then turning up the volume on microphone channel!

    No heckler ever beat a good PA system by shouting, if a speaker or sound technician knows how to use one!

    In examples I have observed, where political speakers gave way because of heckling, they seemed unaware of the amplified sound levels (or potential sound levels) reaching their audience.



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  • In todays political climate in learning centre’s where SJW’s and Gynocentric social engineering is happening, is it any wonder that free speech is being sabotaged ? . . . like what may happen to this post ?



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  • When politicians speak locally, and leave without taking questions, I think heckling is fair game. They don’t agree and have threatened to arrest me.

    It is not proper at a university to allow one side on a controversy to speak, but not the other.

    The CBC has done this allowing various anti-environmentalists to speak without any counter-voice.

    By controversial I mean disagreement among informed people, not just crack-pots (eg. climate change, perpetual motion machines, existence of hippo-sized martians…)



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  • She handled the hecklers badly. No wit – just “be quiet or leave” over and over again. She should go to some comedy clubs; maybe she’ll learn a few things.
    You can judge a politician or a public speaker by how they handle hecklers. She gets an F.
    As I said in the other thread “you’re as good as your hecklers.” Mailer said that. He got heckled quite a bit and handled it well, as does Chomsky.
    What Mailer meant was that a heckler is like a patient. The speaker is like a doctor. The more challenging the patient, the more one’s ability to respond in the moment (and to the unexpected) is challenged and revealed.



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  • With all due respect, arguing the point “allowing non-medical personnel to take knives…is problematic” is a bit limp.

    It could be construed as saying “it’s okay for cultures to do these things, but please make sure suitably qualified medical personnel perform the procedures”.

    We should be saying “it’s NOT okay to do these things, with or without medical personnel”.



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  • A Social Justice Warrior.

    These are folk who tend to work with simple emotional judgment calls weighting someone’s contention (argument detail is mostly discounted) depending on a well know hierarchy of privilege/oppressed groupings, recent use of Toxic Werdz or phrases that betray insensitivity to oppressed groupings, and combining these to form a positive or negative judgment and if negative invalidate any of your speech by imputing negative intentions, say, to your deceptively unemotional language. Free floating individuals are not recognised. All individuals are believed to be group attached, the more privileged the more conspiratorial the attachments. Claims of non-attachment are simply not believed.

    I identify these folk with the hyper pro social, the enthusiastic super empathetic “mind readers” keen to parse the world into loved in-groups and hated out groups. Uncertainty of where folk stand is almost unbearable.

    I think they harm many an intellectually supported empathetic position by the use of over simple heuristics. I don’t believe at present there is a single SJW on this site though there are more than a few intellectually supported empathetic folk.

    None of us are free of this stuff though.

    Rob’s use of “gynocentric” in the context makes me feel uncomfortable compared with the none specific SJW. It is too seemingly pointed a term like Islamophobic, but actually not sufficiently so, thereby risking much error. My Toxic Werd indicator went off, quite possibly wrongly in this case.



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  • Thank you Phil. I’ve met the hyper pro social The gain on the emotive dial is turn up high while the rational evidence based sine wave is flat. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who cringed momentarily at the word “Gynocentric”. A derogatory reference to a women’s reproductive parts ruling the brain.



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  • But Roedy, other meetings are possible in universities and “balance” at the micro-scale is multiply unreasonable presuming that harms are simply bilateral.

    Complaints of silencing reasonable discussion in any discussion period allotted are to be taken seriously and can be addressed by staging another meeting with the intention of another interested party running the show. The failures of broadcasters are another matter. Where “balanced” is part of the public service mandate, this can often be met too eagerly with a false or fatuous balance. If no reasonable balancing position or positions are immediately available they can form part of a later more coherent program.

    My own view is that there is insufficient slow and considered debate. To publicly ask Namazie and any attending to further attend a countering presentation would be brilliant. I think it should be the University’s first line of dealing with contentions over meeting contents.



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  • David R Allen
    Dec 18, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    What is SJW?

    The problem with “Social Justice Warriors”, is that many of them have ideological notions of what constitutes “social justice”! – Usually with bias towards the interests of some social group, political party, special interest (eg. animal rights), or religious organisation. There are usually also a number of “rebels looking for a cause”, in their membership!



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  • Having encountered just such an SJW recently I observed to a fellow sufferer, that it was as if nuance were the real enemy, and that those who think that, most want to simply control the thoughts of others. Elsewhere judgments of authoritarianism were made.

    It is perhaps the authoritarianism born of exasperation, a loss of patience with a social process, rather than anything darker, BUT it does lay them open to exploitation by true authoritarians.

    I won’t Godwin here…..but I see that is a self defeating announcement.

    Aside. These folk are often immune to the observation that privilege is topical, a local characteristic.



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  • The chances of getting the same audience back is slim. I agree with Roedy that they should have questions at every meeting. People go away frustrated at not being able to quiz that particular speaker. The next meetings speaker might just not have the same pull. In this case though, there was an allotted Q&A but the hecklers were only interested in disrupting the event, not allow the speaker to even make the point. It was not going to be beaten by any PA system or whit.



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  • I think everyone is missing a simple solution to this and associated problems. We need some kind of central government agency, perhaps we could call it The Ministry of Respect, and if at any point we are planning to have a conversation with anyone, say a friend or a stranger on a bus, we submit an outline of the proposed conversation to the ministry and wait for approval before beginning. In these days of electronic communications this should be reasonably practical.
    Alternatively we all need to realise that we don’t have an automatic right to like everything we hear, but that it’s ok as we do have the right to reply/heckle/mock. In fact it’s an important skill to practise. Every few years, or months at the moment, we are faced with idiocies we need to oppose and even propose idiocies ourselves that others need to oppose. That’s the dynamic that makes life such a rich tapestry of cliches.



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  • Hi Alan,

    There is a big difference between heckling – calling out a speaker on some contentious point they are making, or some ridiculous claim, and simply shouting down a speaker to prevent their message being heard by the audience.

    I fail to see that distinction.

    Although it is possible to present heckling as a form of free speech, as the OP does, I remain unconvinced that this is a true representation.

    Every formal debating chamber has rules about hecklers. Every parliament, senate, or chamber of representatives, or debating club, or board has rules that usually follow a familiar pattern: One instance of heckling might be considered appropriate to highlight a factor or aspect of the debate that is being ignored or unjustly minimized. Two challenges will allow a Speaker or Chairman to judge of the Heckler is side-tracking the main debate or otherwise undermining the discussion, and a warning will be issued if they judge that to be so. A third interruption will usually result in an appeal to the whole debate to judge, or expulsion.

    Heckling is at the extreme edge of debate versus censorship. If the Heckler is attempting to introduce a substantive point they may be censored by the Chair, or House majority, by being labelled a ‘bad heckler’, even if the rules are being followed. On the other hand, a significant part of free speech is the rights of those listening to hear alternative points of view. In the case of an honest Debater a heckler is attempting to censor that Debater – even if the the Heckler is attempting to intervene with a valid counter-point.

    Normal debating rules, as above, are the best we have for giving both sides a fair crack of the whip.

    For the former, as a heckler, I would expect reasonable answers when challenging unjustified comments.

    .

    As a speaker I would give short relevant answers to hecklers, which could be a put-downs if the heckling was some irrational or dishonest assertion.

    To me that looks like a double standard. All those who question believe they have legitimate questions – even dogmatic hecklers. My view is that this is why a Chairman is useful. Finding neutral people to facilitate heated debates is really not that hard. Finding, and funding, good security staff is usually the hard part – ask the Rolling Stones.

    No heckler ever beat a good PA system by shouting, if a speaker or sound technician knows how to use one!

    Really, that’s your considered, nuanced, response to people with concerns: Shout them down. Forgive me for not being overwhelmed by the finesse, grace and sophistication of such a ‘solution’. Lest we forget: Debate is about changing the mind of the audience. Can we see how the audience will feel persuaded by such bully-boy tactics …

    Peace.



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  • I’m expecting Q&A conclusions to these things anyway and that these will never be sufficient for many people. The occasion is to present a position not simply stage a debate. I want to add to this with an expectation that proposing a position in certain mixed environments carries with it a risk that you will be expected to return to defend more fully that position. I want very much to extrapolate debate and not just have the potentially frustrating frenzy of emotional exchanges in the closing 15% of the time, rarely instructive to either side.

    Maybe every presentation of a position should have a subsequent debate specifically hosted on Disqus, say, with the expectation of reasonable involvement of the speakers for a week or two subsequent. Maybe this is a condition of having a platform on University premises, and the organisers must take the moderation load until the discussion is concluded.

    What is needed is reassurance to speech deniers that their speech will have a chance to be laid alongside that which they are concerned about. I do not believe, though, that presentation of positions should be forced into the mode of “balancing” debates as that is prejudging, falsely polarising and infantilising. Publishing position papers is honourable at base and should be seen as the start of a process, not the completion of one. We further need to re-inflate the expected timescales of debate to restore its quality.



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  • Stephen of Wimbledon
    Dec 19, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Every formal debating chamber has rules about hecklers. Every parliament, senate, or chamber of representatives, or debating club, or board has rules that usually follow a familiar pattern:

    I think our points of difference are about the nature of the individual debates or presentations.

    I am covering a wider field than you envisage.

    A lot depends on if all participants accept the rules of debate, and if a meeting is being moderated or chaired in an even handed competent manner.

    I am also involved in political meetings where such self discipline is not always shared by all involved, and seeking reasoned a debate is not on the agenda of some.

    No heckler ever beat a good PA system by shouting, if a speaker or sound technician knows how to use one!

    Really, that’s your considered, nuanced, response to people with concerns: Shout them down. Forgive me for not being overwhelmed by the finesse, grace and sophistication of such a ‘solution’.

    The situation I envisage is of a large public meeting or a conference where an individual or small group is simply shouting down a speaker to disrupt the message.

    Lest we forget: Debate is about changing the mind of the audience. Can we see how the audience will feel persuaded by such bully-boy tactics …

    Indeed it is, but I would unhesitating turn up an amplifier to prevent some minority bully-boy group depriving an audience of the information they have come to hear, by shouting down a speaker in a purely disruptive manner.

    I have already said I would briefly reply to heckled questions, but would not let hecklers dominate the meeting or disrupt its agenda.
    Questions are usually scheduled at the end of a presentation with questioners taken in turn by the chair or speaker in a formal situation.

    If some were purely disruptive then they would be asked to leave and escorted out by security.
    In less formal situations it has to be played by ear!



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  • Maybe every presentation of a position should have a subsequent debate
    specifically hosted on Disqus, say, with the expectation of reasonable
    involvement of the speakers for a week or two subsequent.

    Love it!!

    frenzy of emotional exchanges in the closing 15% of the time, rarely
    instructive to either side.

    I proposed to my group that we have a Question Time style Q&A at the end because they HAVE been stressful with people taking much much more than the allotted time task their questions. My group are frustrating though in that, no one has an idea until someone does then alternatives come in thick and fast and I lose the will to live.

    What is needed is reassurance to speech deniers that their speech will
    have a chance to be laid alongside that which they are concerned about

    Nothing would have placated this group here. They were out to stop the presentation, full stop. Spread out in strategic positions so as not to look like a group and adding the mayhem when needed.



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  • Nothing would have placated this group here.

    No. but it may have better placated the feminist and LGBTQ+ societies. And helped in the public debate that ensued. Besides it is an indication of non partiality from the institution and better licenses their policing actions.



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  • Olgun
    Dec 19, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Nothing would have placated this group here. They were out to stop the presentation, full stop. Spread out in strategic positions so as not to look like a group and adding the mayhem when needed.

    This is the sort of group and sort of situation, where I would just turn up the volume on the PA so the rest of the audience could hear over the disturbance while continuing to speak calmly, ignoring the disruption. – and await action from security if they persisted.



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  • Security was a joke. Don’t know what the legal situation would have been and if the police could have been called but then the objective would have been reached anyway, total disruption. They even called one another on the phones. Any manhandling would have suited them down to the ground as well. Don’t know what the PA would have been like in such a small room?



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  • Olgun
    Dec 19, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Security was a joke. Don’t know what the legal situation would have been and if the police could have been called but then the objective would have been reached anyway, total disruption. They even called one another on the phones.

    A lot of factors have to be taken into account. – The proportion of disruptives in the audience, the size of the room and audience etc.

    Using increased amplification only works on fairly large venues where microphones are needed, and if the disruptive element is relatively small.

    If a group decided to disrupt a performance in a theatre or cinema, the management would ask them to leave, and in bar or club, the bouncers would throw them out!



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  • Hi Alan,

    I agree that we don’t live in a perfect World.

    Nevertheless; whether you call it a speech, presentation, or debate makes no difference to me. Any public meeting on a subject that could be construed as political (i.e. nearly all of them) will attract people with alternative views.

    One of the few corporate balls sayings that I have found has a grain of truth running through it: There is no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity. There are limits, of course, as I outlined it’s important to have the final say (e.g. expulsion).

    In the end people are only persuaded by the argument.

    Peace.



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  • Stephen of Wimbledon
    Dec 19, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    There are limits, of course, as I outlined it’s important to have the final say (e.g. expulsion).

    In the end people are only persuaded by the argument.

    True,- but we have to recognise that some people will not be persuaded by any evidence or argument, and there are minorities, who have not come to the meeting to think about issues raised.
    They have come to prominently exercise knee-jerk reactions – usually from a viewpoint of ignorance. Such people have no “right” to deprive a wider audience of a reasoned presentation. Nor do they have a “right” to hi-jack someone else’s meeting!

    That is why I suggested less rigorous methods before expulsion.

    One of the other points I was making, was that inexperienced speakers are often unaware of sound levels experienced by their audiences, so think they are being shouted down, when in fact their audiences can still hear them quite clearly.
    In a properly set up PA system (avoiding feed-back) the quietest place in the room is around the microphone (which is usually behind or to the side of the loudspeakers).
    Heckling (in comparison to the amplified sound) can therefore sound louder to the speaker than to the audience. Performing singers and comedians are aware of this!

    (Nevertheless, I suspect that persistent YEC hecklers are given short shrift at science conferences!)



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  • I have attended a bunch of political conferences in my day and I am always relieved when the disruptive hecklers are escorted out. Sometimes the conference (if it’s been going on for a while and it’s already getting late) just comes to an end at that point.
    I, however, could see myself heckling if I felt strongly enough about something and felt that the audience was being misled, but I would not mind being thrown out; it is a badge of honor. Yes, expel them if they are disrupting the meeting. They should feel good that they made their point and then should accept the consequences.
    I have challenged teachers in the past. This is not heckling, but there is certainly a fine line at times.
    Usually, when someone heckles, the person speaking is able to handle it. Or the audience will send a message to the guy and he’ll end up walking out. (Usually, the really bad hecklers are just idiots, fixated on something, filled with undue resentment and unreasonable. That is not always the case, but it usually is.)
    In formal environments heckling should not be tolerated. Obama was called a liar by some Republican a while back if you recall, at a formal address. He should have been thrown out. But then Obama would be called a “dictator.” Tough one. I say throw him out anyway.—You don’t do that. Sorry.



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  • headswapboy
    Dec 19, 2015 at 6:52 am

    I think everyone is missing a simple solution to this and associated problems. We need some kind of central government agency, perhaps we could call it The Ministry of Respect, and if at any point we are planning to have a conversation with anyone, say a friend or a stranger on a bus, we submit an outline of the proposed conversation to the ministry and wait for approval before beginning. In these days of electronic communications this should be reasonably practical.

    I think there could be one or two previously identified problems with trusting politicians to set up something like that!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four#Ministries_of_Oceania
    Ministry of Love – Ministry of Truth



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  • When, if ever, is heckling a legitimate form of free speech?

    For me, it comes down to the nature of the event. For a planned speaking engagement, I think it reasonable for the speaker to expect to be heard and the audience to listen without interruption. A matter of decorum. I consider heckling in this context unlawful “disturbing the peace”. I don’t see a heckler as exercising free speech in this context, but rather as trying to hijack the free speech of others.

    For an impromptu speech, as some guy who brings his own soapbox to a park and just starts talking, I would say that no such expectation exists. Heckle (or walk) away.

    Are there speakers who are too inflammatory or controversial to speak at universities?

    No. But different Universities might have different missions and that mission might inform the decision on whom to invite to speak.

    Where do you draw the line?

    No line to draw. The students can express their displeasure by “voting with one’s feet” (not heckling). One can organize an event counter to the ideas of the so-perceived “inflammatory or controversial” speaker, comment in the school newspaper, or write an Op-Ed piece if they desire. To be credible, though, I think opposing views would need to be informed by the actual speech. I say, let ideas be heard in the open where they can be critiqued.



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  • Phil
    Dec 20, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    Are there speakers who are too inflammatory or controversial to speak at universities?

    No. But different Universities might have different missions and that mission might inform the decision on whom to invite to speak.

    On decisions on who to invite, there are clearly those who are too ignorant to be invited to speak at universities, although anyone should be able to ask relevant questions – if they are interested in listening to, and understanding the answers.

    The problems arise if foolish people invite those who are full of inflammatory nonsense and have nothing of substance to contribute to the topic.

    The reverse problem is when those in an audience are full of inflammatory nonsense and decide that facts challenging their nonsense, must be classed as “offensive” or “threatening” and suppressed!

    This is especially so if they are in privileged positions of power.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35154411
    A Saudi writer who has called for political reform is reported to have been sentenced to four years in prison.

    He is believed to have been detained in July after saying Saudi Arabia should become a constitutional monarchy on TV.

    He had also reportedly been made to sign a pledge not to discuss public issues with the written or broadcast media, or on his social media accounts.

    Islam trying to silence critics is a long standing tradition!



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