Hakuna! Ongee! Tawe! Gũtirĩ!
The human being is a heckler. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a polished and refined bureaucrat or a rusty hawker in some dark and desolate alley along River Road. The accountant, when home from work and in front of his 40-inch TV, will still heckle and chuckle when he hears a disagreeable comment from a politician. The prize goes to the hawker though, who will attend a meeting and courageously make his feelings known.
The question as to whether heckling is right or wrong falls within the realms of nature. And nature, you’d agree, is complex. Questions of nature have no simple or simplistic answers. Nature scorns soundbites and clichés. And nature is not just about majestic forests, clothed in death-like stillness—or the power and poise of lions as their roar echoes and re-echoes across the rugged expanse of the Mara.
Finally, nature is not just about atoms and electrons.
When correctly comprehended, nature encompasses the metaphysical. It deals with ideas and ideals as well as values and virtues. In antiquity and during the classical periods, natural philosophy was a big scholarly tent under which men studied astronomy and beauty, physics and ethics—all side by side.
This is to show that to study heckling—is to study ethics—and to study nature.
In less than six months, Kenyans are going to the polls for an election that will usher in a transition. Politicians have many tools and avenues to pass their message across to the populace: a few refined town hall-like meetings, a dash of carefully worded social media messaging through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and live TV interviews, where politicians and their apparatchiks smash phones and bang tables to emphasize their arguments.
Yet the truth is that a political rally remains the theatre of action and the real marketplace of political discourse. In a typical political rally, tradition gives the politician the power and prestige to talk down to the public. They clap and chant and then go home. The (un)settled opinion is that if a citizen does not agree with a politician or with his message, he should just stay away. Heckling, they are told, is immoral, uncouth, even criminal.
However, where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently and invariably wrong? Are there situations when heckling should be tolerated, even encouraged? What is the place of heckling in a free and democratic society? How does the law on heckling intersect and overlap with issues to do with free speech?
To understand anything, it’s important to travel back in time to its roots and origins. Before the 18th century, the word “heckling” as we now understand it meant an entirely different thing. A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp. Heckling involved drawing out the unwanted fibres from the flax so that it would be clean enough to be spun. A heckler therefore was an industrious worker, who, I should imagine, was dignified and respected.
It was not a coincidence that the Scottish town of Dundee, which was home to many heckler-workers, would emerge as the place where heckling was refined and transformed to become the proto-type of the heckling that we now relate to. Heckler-workers would choose one from amongst themselves to read the day’s news to the whole group. In response to politicians’ reported speeches that they deemed absurd or ridiculous, the rest of the heckler-workers would taunt and tease, scorn and sneer.
A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp.
In Scotland, even when the meaning changed with the times, it did not at first involve derisive catcalls, loud jeers, or disruptive boos. Instead, heckling referred to the intense questioning of politicians by the public. The Scottish story tells us that heckling is a legitimate tool that has the potential to improve the democratic tone and texture of a republic. In many other countries, heckling has been a successful device both as a political thermostat (to influence public opinion or government policy) and political thermometer (to reflect public opinion or government policy). Public speeches about the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, clean fuel, apartheid, and civil rights have, for the same intent, involved some heckling-punctuated protests. This history is important. It shows us that heckling was a socio-political device invented by struggling industrial workers—the class we would call hustlers in Kenya’s current political jargon. Even more curious and exciting is the fact that, as a political device and innovation, it evolved in Scotland, the birthplace of John Stuart Mill, the foremost patriarch and prophet of civil liberty including free speech.
Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers. Nelson Mandela was heckled by Muslim adherents in 2001, when he paid a visit to the Grey Street Mosque in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, because of his stand on the war on terror and the American military campaign in Afghanistan.
In Kenya, the most enduring story of heckling was President Jomo Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in 1969 where he was met with shouts of “Ndume, Ndume”—the approving chants directed to elevate his then foremost political nemesis Jaramogi. When Kenyatta rose to speak, his unprintable expletives provoked the crowd. Chaos ensued. Police started firing randomly. Official government records put the death toll at 11.
Without being insensitive to the victims of this incident, this figure, in the weighing scale of fatalities—does not answer to the subsequent description of a massacre. Prof. Macharia Munene, in his book Historical Reflections on Kenya, alleges that the term Kisumu massacre evolved due to the push by historians such as William Ochieng and Bethwell Ogot. But that’s a story for another day.
Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers.
As we can see, the cost of heckling was paid in blood and tears. Most recently, thanks to the expanding democratic space, heckling is increasingly tolerated. While on the campaign trail recently, Raila was heckled some places in Meru. William Ruto has also been heckled in parts of the former Western Province.
There are convincing arguments against heckling. One very seductive argument is that heckling limits free speech.
The gold standard for free speech—in Western thought and civilization—is Mill’s Liberty. In this Tour de Force, the student of politics will find perhaps the most elegant arguments in favour of free speech ever penned. Listen to this:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
In issues to do with free speech, Mill argues, numbers mean nothing. The opinion and voice of a solitary man is equal to the voice and opinion of an impressive assembly.
When you silence a person, the cost to knowledge and social progress can be huge. And the person who “loses” is not just the person silenced. The loss is for the whole society, as Mill eloquently posits:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [Emphasis mine.]
Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler. If you give one the benefit of an uninterrupted speech, you shut down and deny the other. It almost looks like a zero-sum game. You might argue that the meeting has been convened by the politician and therefore is technically the politician’s meeting, and that he should hold the exclusive keys of free speech.
This was William Ruto’s argument when he lost his cool in the face of sustained heckling during a Laikipia tour.
Granted, we are wont to view the heckler as the aggressor who wants to take a place belonging to someone else. That, moreover, the people who attend a rally or some other public meeting come purposefully to listen to the speaker and not the heckler.
Well, not quite.
In the Heckler’s Promise, Lee Campbell, argues in his paper that the heckler wants neither to be the official speaker nor silent mute. And that without the heckler, public speaking is not democratic as should answer to the meaning of participative democracy. Campbell also argues that if we muzzle the heckler, there’s no genuine encounter between the politician and the citizen.
Moreover, I tend to view heckling as social release—some form of catharsis—that is absolutely necessary in a living and breathing democracy. For how do you muzzle a citizen and subdue him with fake batons of decency and decorum—when he comes to listen to a member of parliament who has squandered the constituency’s allocations on girlfriends—by telling him to listen passively or to request for an impossible chance to speak? Or how can anyone really fault the crowd for heckling President Moi at the burial of Robert Ouko?
Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler.
You can say that he can register his disapproval through the ballot. And therein lies the problem. The politician has a vote, a voice, and a platform. Yet the voter only has the vote. And we’re not talking about legislation—which the citizen delegates to his legislator—according to the canons of representative democracy. Here, we’re talking about public discourse and/or expression.
You can also argue that the citizen can convene his own meeting. However, who knows him? If he calls a meeting, who will attend?
If we fully grasp the power dynamics between Prince and Pauper, to borrow the title of Mark Twain’s popular novel, then perhaps the heckler should be congratulated—not criticized.
Yet, the truth is that the prince and the pauper are not equal and never will be. Adam Smith, the celebrated classical economist and moral philosopher, even argues that social inequality is good for society. Without it, there cannot be any meaningful progress. Egalitarianism is utopia.
So, we should perhaps admit that a citizen will not have the voice and the platform like the politician. Yet even if the platform is the politician’s, it is wholly against nature to be passive like a pebble; even a stone causes ripples when it is thrown into water.
There can be a compromise: We don’t have absolute rights—even when it comes to the right of free speech or expression. So long as the speaker’s right to speak is not drowned out and completely halted, you have not interfered with his right to free speech. If you heckle him spontaneously or at intervals that do not make speech impossible, you may have just achieved the democratic ideal that the majority should decide—and the minority be heard. This is as it applies to the voice, separate to the vote.
So the point is: you should not heckle with the intention of disrupting—but only to register your displeasure. Otherwise, you’re limiting the speaker’s rights and the rights of others—who came to listen to what the speaker had to say. As celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would memorably aver, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
But some might still argue that it’s right to disrupt a meeting. Of course that’s correct—even if it’s illegal! This is because something can be legal but patently unjust and unconscionable. That is the field and sphere of civil disobedience in the tradition of such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
In any case, ideas are like commodities. For instance, if you found someone selling heroin to children, and if you had the strength, would you leave him right there, and go to report the matter to the police? You’d first disrupt the sale. It’s the right thing to do.
By that analogy, if someone is selling poisonous and dangerous ideas, you’d be duty bound to disrupt him or her by any means including heckling. The fundamental element of civil disobedience is that disruption must be civil.
Of course, violence and stone-throwing are acts beyond the pale and which the law and society should condemn.
While heckling is to a large extent acceptable, it can be used by political opponents to disadvantage rivals in the political marketplace. That’s the reason organized heckling is suspicious. However, organized hecklings are not created equal. For instance, I don’t believe that voters should not organize to heckle a politician.
“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
Politicians meet all the time to plan what they’ll tell us. This is organization. There’s nothing wrong if the people organize on how they’ll register their displeasure—provided they do this by themselves. The organized heckling that can’t pass muster is the one where a politician uses money to plan and heckle a rival’s meeting. This is corruption of political discourse which makes the political marketplace artificially un-even.
This treatise would not be complete without mentioning one other important function of heckling in a free and democratic society. Heckling tests the emotional intelligence and wit of a politician. It’s a bad sign for a democracy if a politician is easily rattled by hecklers.
The famous British parliamentarian John Wilkes was on the campaign trail when he met a heckler. This is how it went.
Heckler: Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the devil.
John Wilkes: What if your friend is not vying?
Everyone, I can imagine, burst into uproarious laughter, while approving Wilkes witty response.
This is one area Deputy President William Ruto should probably work on.
Heckling can be fun, especially if it’s spontaneous. It can actually qualify as an artful form of expressing dissent.
So go and heckle—but don’t disrupt.