Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thorubos, free speech, and pro-life speakers.....

I went to an event yesterday entitled "Echoes of the Holocaust: when personhood is denied, the unthinkable becomes reality."

The event was disrupted by people singing for about an hour. At that point, 3 or 4 police officers arrived on scene warning that disruptors would be charged with mischief. This statement succeeded in temporarily breaking up the crowd which had congregated at the front ofthe room for solidarity and in order to block the visuals of the presentation.

Two people who refused to stop disrupting were arrested, presumably for 'mischief,' and the police withdrew from the room ( I assume they were busy booking the two persons arrested).

Jose, the invited speaker, then resumed the beginning of the presentation, but as his presentation progressed, the heckling became more intense, and very little of the orators message came through.

What I found the most fascinating was that those who wished to hear the orator's words claimed that the hubbub raised by the protestors was an impingement on free speech. In fact, the orator himself stated that free speech doesn't include the right to freely speak in a disruptive manner, and declared that he was a journalism major and therefore knows his stuff.

This however, isn't true. In fact, the idea of preventing a speaker from delivering their message by shouting them down has roots as old as the the tradition of allowing anyone to speak whatever they wished. The greeks called it 'thorubos' and it was quite common. A classics academic, Robert Wallace, shows how important it was to Athenians:

For the Athenians, isêgoria and parrhêsia included the power (exousia) to speak in public, to participate frankly and openly in civic debate, and to say what one wanted, including insults. But Athens’ democracy was no oppressive “heavy state”. It was a community of citizens, governing themselves in their own interests. Asssembly thorubos had first the practical purpose of regulating debate, as the Athenians set no official time limits for Assembly speeches. More importantly, thorubos was a negative
vote by the community, constituting its fundamental power to decide what it
would listen to. All citizens could freely address the Assembly. None could demand
to be heard for as long as he wanted to speak. The obligation to sit quietly
without speaking, to listen silently to whatever someone said, was considered a
hated characteristic of oppressive regimes: monarchy, tyranny, and oligarchy.

None of the speakers driven from the orator’s platform mention isêgoria, parrhêsia
or the right to be heard without interruption. On the contrary, Aeschines
states that some politicians “shamelessly” refuse to yield to the people’s shouting
and step down (1.34).
While every citizen could exercise the freedom to speak, the community’s power to shout down stupid or windy speakers was democratic freedom. The denial of that freedom amounted to oligarchy or tyranny.

In fact, I would argue that any true believer in free speech must admit that if everyone has a right to speak, then people have a right to speak disruptively.

One thing that people who were in the audience probably didn't realize isthat they themselves utilized some very effective thorubos of their own; every time the protestors attempted to deliver their own proganda, they were shouted down by audience members who thought that their opinions were unworthy of listening to.

In fact, I didn't particularly like the message either group was sending (though I really liked the sing-along part), but I recognize that free speech means the orator has the opportunity to speak freely- and the audience has the chance to freely interrupt him.