I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.
That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.
I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).
Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task. People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.
Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news. There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.
When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.
Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.
Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.
Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.
The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.
PITY THE NATION
(After Khalil Gibran)
Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!
With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.
I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.
We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.