Sunday, March 20, 2022

On Comics and Speakers Who Bomb

Suppose you attend a stand-up comedy performance. You're excited to listen and giggle and laugh. But unfortunately, the comic in question -- let's not mince words -- bombs. The jokes don't land, or worse, they're outright offensive. The crowd, which started with a few half-hearted chuckles, starts to turn stony, and eventually downright ugly. Eventually, halfway through the set, the boos set in. Ultimately the comic is booed all the way off the stage.

Most of us, I think, would not view this as a successful evening -- either for the audience members or the comic. But would we say the comic's free speech rights have been violated? I doubt any of us would go that far. Free speech by no means guarantees a favorable reception.

Yet many of us -- myself included -- think things are quite different in the case of an invited university speaker who is "shouted down" by protesters in the audience, such that they cannot finish their talk. This is thought to represent a free speech threat. But what -- and I ask this question earnestly -- marks out the difference between this and the comic?

The answer typically given for why drowning out of the university speaker is wrongful is that it deprives those members of the audience who did want to hear the talk of their ability to do so. I do find this a compelling argument generally, but it doesn't successfully distinguish the comic's case -- it is easy to imagine that somebody in the comic's audience also wanted to see how the set would have ended.

Another possibility is that the audience for the comic did not come to the show with the intention of blocking the performance. Their anger was unplanned and organic, in contrast to the university protesters, who we suspect came to the talk knowing from the outset that they wanted to disrupt it. If this is our distinction, it suggests that there is no foul in "shouting down" a university speaker some stanzas deep into their talk, if it is the result of genuine on-the-spot negative reactions rather than a planned disruption (though how one could tell the difference, I don't know).

Still another possibility is that a comic performance is only valued insofar as it pleases the audience, and so where the crowd turns against the performance there is no particular interest in the comic being able to continue performing. A university lecture at least nominally is not quite so hedonistic in its assessed value, and so we feel it is important that such talks be allowed to proceed notwithstanding the fact that the audience does not like what they hearing. This makes some intuitive sense to me, though it gets blurry with intentionally political stand-up comics, or university talks that are more performative than educational. I also struggle with how this accounts for a permutation of the hypothetical where a political speaker is speechifying on a public square soapbox and the crowd (while not violent) reacts deeply negatively to his speech, in a way that effectively drowns out the speaker. There, even though the talk is as "political" as a university speech, I do not tend to think there is a violation of free speech norms if the speaker ends up being drowned out. But why not?

Perhaps the answer is a lot more contingent than we might otherwise like to admit: certain spaces and events, like talks by invited speakers at universities, are ones where we stipulate heightened valuation for rules which allow for speeches to be given relatively uninterrupted in a fashion where they can be heard by any who care to listen. This is not a general rule of "free speech"; there are many other spaces where it does not apply -- but the very fact that there are many other spaces where the rules are different and responses can be more "raucous" (if you will) actually serves to further justify the importance of the validity of having a space with this sort of rule. It's good to have some known space where we can stipulate in advance that the speaker will be able to "complete their set" notwithstanding a possible hostile audience, and the fact that there are many other spaces where people are allowed to be more immediately expressive in their disdain mitigates the burden of foreclosing or limiting that sort of expression in this particular space.

Anyway, I don't have firm conclusions here, but this is a puzzle that I had been wondering about for awhile so I figured I'd sketch some preliminary thoughts here as I work through it.


Ari Allyn-Feuer said...

I think a big part of it is that in the case of the heckler's veto of a university lecture, you have two separate groups of people, one who invited the speaker and still want to hear them for the duration of the heckling, and the other group who, whether spontaneously or by premeditation, are trying to stop it.

To get truly analogous in the comic case, you'd posit something like this. After bombing somewhere, a comic is booed off that stage. Their fans then organize a new standup set for them at another club, whereupon the people who booed them off the first stage then go to the other club to also boo them off that stage, to prevent their fans from hearing their set at the other event.

This more-closely-analogous formulation retains (to my ear) more of the "now it's about free speech" valence of the university lecture case.

David Schraub said...

This suggests that if the audience of a university talk comes in genuinely willing to listen to the talk, but as the talk proceeds spontaneously and organically decides "this sucks" and starts booing loudly, that's fine. Which maybe is a valid line, though again, I have no idea how one polices it.

Ari Allyn-Feuer said...

I guess. But if (e.g.) the same speaker held another lecture later and the same people who spontaneously booed went to that event to boo, it would be inappropriate.

A norm like that protects speech, because if someone's prevented from lecturing by a spontaneous fount of disapproval, as disappointing as that may be, they can try again and get a fair shake again (or self-select a sympathetic group that wants to hear them). It's a disappointment that terminates, not an ongoing blockade.

Erl said...

Ultimately I can't convince myself that I have viewpoint-neutral beliefs about this tactic.

If I take the Godwin's Limit and look at four cases:

1. A university where Nazi speakers, and only Nazi speakers, are shouted down by outraged students
2. A university where no speaker is ever shouted down by outraged students
3. A university where the Nazi students shout down non-Nazi speakers, and the non-Nazi students shout down Nazi speakers
4. A university where the dominant Nazi party shouts down all non-Nazi speakers, and Nazi speakers go uninterrupted

I find I just HAVE to believe that the first campus is in the best shape in terms of free speech. But if that's true, I don't believe in a viewpoint-neutral system for shouting down speakers. But if that's true, I don't want my beliefs implemented by procedure—they have to be implemented by culture & community.