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Heckle – Part 1

by on May 6, 2013

To ‘heckle’ originally comes from a flax-processing method: ‘heckling’ is separating the individual strands of flax. The originators of the verb we know today were a particularly radical and vocal group of ‘hecklers’ from Dundee who joined together to verbally embarrass and irritate politicians in the 1800s. Heckling has now become a gesture of verbal defiance, directed angrily, wittily and with perfect timing at figures of supposed authority. Hecklers often use the opportunity which a live debate or discussion affords to protest and to inform both the audience and the speaker of their own feelings: “There is little doubt that heckling is an effective way of informing others on how a portion of the audience feels and provides specific information on which social comparison can be made,” (Silverthorne & Mazmanian, 1975: 234). This disruption of the flow of speech by a spokesperson with a personal and protesting interjection can be seen as a verbal ‘battle’ between two different ideologies. One ideology, the ‘party’ ideology of the spokesperson is disrupted and challenged by the subjective and objecting ideology of the heckler. Furthermore, as is often the intent, this interjection can have a serious effect on the credibility of the speaker: “It is possible that the heckling undermined the credibility of the speaker. As a result, the effectiveness of communication would be reduced when the speaker was heckled,” (Silverthorne & Mazmanian, 1975: 235).

Heckling, using notions created by de Certeau (1984), can be seen as a ‘tactical’ subversion of the ‘strategic’. In this sense, the strategic is the ideology of the public speaker and the tactical subversion by the heckler is a ‘metis’ or ‘way of operating’ (de Certeau, 1984) which utilizes gaps within strategies to the heckler’s own advantage; that is, to disrupt the speaker’s ideology with their own. The ideology of the speaker is strategic, that is, all-encompassing at the beginning of the speech or debate, but the tactical interjection by the heckler then changes the dynamic of the event. This interjection can then possibly transform the understanding and appreciation of the speaker and their ideology by the audience.

Although heckling certainly still has a place in the political and social debates of today, it has become a less and less noticeable gesture. This is mainly to do with the ‘stage management’ and hand-picked audiences of political rallies and debates. This regulation of environments ripe for heckling has meant that there are only occasional times when heckling can be engaged in. Spontaneity is essential for many forms of protest but heckling especially relies on the impulsive urges of hecklers and the environment is certainly vital to creating and fostering this energy. Many political parties realise this and try to regulate the environments within which their leaders and spokespersons speak: “Spontaneity is the enemy of the spin-doctor” (BBC News Magazine, 2005). Much heckling of politicians is enacted in the House of Commons, although this is more of a form of party political leverage as opposed to an actual voice of protest and is an expected gesture. Since there are now not as many opportunities for hecklers to engage in their practice, much heckling has now boiled-down from simple witty protestations to angry mud-slinging:  “Are we, the voting public, angrier and more disaffected? Almost certainly yes. Whenever Tony Blair’s masochism strategy exposes him to a hostile audience, usually on TV nowadays, it is anger, not humour that sets the tone,” (White, The Guardian Online, 2006).

One particularly important illustration surfaces when I think about heckling in this sense: the 2011 Student Fees protests in Manchester. The initial meeting and accumulation of protestors had been at University Place on the Manchester University campus but the march organisers decided to lead the procession to another location in order to address them before the march started. The new location was very much like an amphitheatre, with the protestors sat and stood on steps which partly surrounded the organisers who were at the bottom of the steps. This physical separation and overshadowing of the organisers by the protestors indicated what was to come. As the organisers attempted to speak to the protestors, to announce the ideology and ‘rules’ for the march, the assembled protestors began to boo and heckle the speakers. The organisers, not knowing what to do, tried to continue speaking only for the volume and ferocity of the heckling to increase. After several attempts to control the heckling and vocal protestations, the speakers announced that the protestors should lead themselves in the march as they were obviously unwilling to listen to them. This was met with cheers as the protestors stood up and began to march towards the University again. I feel that this example of heckling is very illustrative of the growing dissention and discontent that the student protestors were feeling towards figures of authority at the time. The fact that the organisers were ‘on the same side’ as the protestors was forgotten as an ‘enough talking, time for action’ mood increased. The ideology of the organisers was one of leadership and the reiteration of the ‘rules’ of protest, but this ideology was disrupted by the heckling of the protestors. They weren’t willing to listen to any more regulations or speeches and, for better or worse, they wanted to ‘act’.





BBC News Magazine, (2005). Why Do People Heckle? Available at: Accessed on: 12th February 2013)


Certeau, Michel de (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press


Silverthorne, Colin P.  & Mazmanian, Lee (1975): ‘The Effects of Heckling and Media of Presentation on the Impact of a Persuasive Communication’, The Journal of Social Psychology, 96:2, 229-236


White, Michael. (2006). A Brief History of Heckling. The Guardian Online. Available at: Accessed on: 12th February 2013

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