Do Not Pardon the Interruption

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Heckling is attempting to go respectable.

Traditionally, interrupting performers and speakers with wisecracks and insults was the specialty of nightclub drunks. Later it was taken up by political dissenters who were not inclined to wait for the question-and-answer period.

Heckling was never, however, considered to be a polite way of registering objections during live speeches or performances. The approved methods of showing disapproval are withholding applause, or, in extreme cases, booing (for opera crowds) and walking out in the middle (for more dignified crowds).

Now, Miss Manners has observed, heckling is attempting to reinvent itself under the popular name of "audience participation." The Internet having given us the means of widely disseminating immediate personal reactions to just about everything, the idea has arisen that doing so will enhance any format.

"(C)ollectively, any audience is smarter than the 4-5 panelists on stage and thus worth listening to," is the way it was put when a forum pioneered providing electronic equipment for its audience to post instant comments on a giant screen that shared the stage with those panelists.

If such is the case, Miss Manners's instant feedback is that this particular forum must have done a remarkably bad job of choosing its panelists. Surely audiences are too smart to spend their time listening to public discussions given by people with less information and insight on the subject matter at hand than they themselves already possess.

They may be disappointed, of course. They may disagree with what is said. They may request clarification. They may identify significant fallacies or omissions. They may have additional points to make. And they will surely voice their opinions of any presentation.

At issue is whether all this should be done during the presentation. As is often the case, people get so excited about technology that enables them to do something new that they feel deliriously free of the restrictions that bind familiar activities. How can there already be rules about something that has never before been tried?

There can be and are. Sorry, all you little whizzes who thought you could outsmart Miss Manners: Using a new method of achieving a rude aim does not catapult you into etiquette-free territory.

Critiquing an event while it is happening is rude under long-existing rules. It is rude to the speakers who have not had a fair chance to make their points, and it is even ruder to members of the audience who have come to hear those points.

Furthermore, it is not a form that yields wisdom, unless that is defined as what wiseguys say off the tops of their heads. The genre is that of notes passed in high school classrooms, or remarks made back to television screens.

The technology exists to enable audiences to pass their cracks silently to one another. Inserting these into the proceedings cannot be defined as progress.

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