Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Impossibility of Speech Disruption

Last week, I went to a talk at UC-Berkeley by James Loeffler on the Zionist history of the architects of post-WWII human rights law.

In the middle of the talk, there was a disruption.

Now you might think that "disruption at Berkeley of a talk on Zionism" would be from some sort of pro-Palestinian or anti-occupation activist -- but in this case, you'd be wrong. The disrupter instead was a disheveled old White man who stood up in the middle of the talk and started rambling incomprehensibly about Mammon and Christ and the coming day of judgment and some 500 year old campaign of resistance which either Jews were a part of or Jews were the adversary of (it really was hard to follow).

In a sense, this was the "ideal" disruption because it is entirely unsympathetic. There's no political controversy that skews our prejudices, there's no uncomfortable dissenting view that may need space for airing. On the ledger of "ensuring the speaker can speak" and "ensuring the audience can participate", every entry fell in favor of silencing the protester as quickly and decisively as possible.

Which is why I found it interesting that, even in this case, there really wasn't anything the event organizers could reasonably do to end the disruption in a timely fashion. We were pretty much at his mercy for as long as he wanted to talk. The organizers walked up towards him and sort of vaguely gestured at the exits, which he ignored; eventually a different organizer got a microphone and asked him to leave and let people listen to the talk, which he also mostly ignored. Eventually, he made his way down to the front and out the door (never not talking), started to walk out (to cheers), briefly walked back in (to boos), and then finally exited once again. But there was no real doubt that he could have kept going indefinitely, at least until some form of security arrived to forcibly remove him.

And that's the interesting thing about such disruptions: even in a case like this, where one is wholly unsympathetic to a protester who is adding no intellectual or social content to the event whatsoever, if he withdraws social cooperation and just refuses to leave when asked, there's really nothing anyone can do short of the physical. And that, in turn, will no doubt feel like an escalation and an overreaction -- the protester literally dragged out of the room -- even in a case like this, much less in one where some people might have sympathy for the protester.

And in a way, that dynamic is what is being relied upon in these sorts of protesters. Our society relies on certain implicit norms of social cooperation (such as, if you're asked to leave an event you're disrupting, you walk out under your own power). Where that cooperation is withdrawn, society isn't powerless, but it becomes a lot cruder a lot more quickly -- and the revelation of the crudeness is often the point of the protest. But the point of using the above example is to stress that this is the reality in any social case -- it isn't something unique to a particular political or social worldview. Any social institution relies on implicit cooperation as a substitute for physical power as against any sort of challenge -- it's not something unique to the good guys or the bad guys.

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

Why didn't they call campus security instead of putting up with the disruption? It seems to me to be an example of extreme fastidiousness, letting this guy ramble rather than calling security.

David Schraub said...

I'm guessing they did call security, but he left before they arrived.

Mikhail Turkhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.