Essay: Holding the Speaker Hostage

Heckling is both a primitive art form and a kind of low-grade amateur guerrilla warfare, a nonviolent intellectual terrorism. Done properly, it produces roughly the effect achieved by releasing a bagful of garter snakes and rats in a cathedral: a spiritual shambles, the sermon in ruins, the bishop standing speechless at the altar.

Some sentimentalists, of course, think of heckling as a democratic dialogue, a roughhewn give-and-take of language. But it can turn strident and ultimately sinister. The shriek from the floor can become a different medium altogether. It turns into street theater. Anarchy crashes the hall, like a motorcycle leaping through...

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