The self-regulation of professional hecklers

Sunday, 6 February 2005 — 8:40pm | Debate

I am aware that at least some of my readership first arrived here by way of some involvement or interest in the campaign to oust Rob Anders in the federal election last June. If you fall into that category, it may interest you to know that earlier today, the University of Calgary Speech and Debate Society alumnus, Diplomacy player and current sitting Member of Parliament delivered a keynote as a guest speaker and adjudicator at the McGoun Cup (Western Canadian Debating Championships), this year hosted by his alma mater.

Some brief observations are in order, as Mr. Anders said a number of things that were, to say the least, intruiging. Mind you, it was neither as amusing as Gary Mar doing impressions of Belinda Stronach at last year’s McGoun, nor unorthodox as Dr. Juris Lejnieks delivering a crash-course analysis of A Canticle for Leibowitz at Hugill ’02, but it provided some valuable insight into Anders’ approach to political discourse.

The speech began with the standard recognition of the tendency for debaters to be Leaders of the Future involved in all manner of political muckraking; nobody ever pays much attention to those of us who do it not as a stepping stone towards enacting any tangible change, but for the inherent thrill of what is fundamentally a logic-driven word game. The utilitarian approach to debating naturally favours politics and law, and I would posit the conjecture that the predominance of those fields in the game’s culture follows as a direct corollary. I get the feeling that lot of seasoned competitors find that elusive love of the game and stay for precisely that reason, but even then, applicability prevails as an excursive justification.

Anders cited varsity debating as being an experience more valuable to him than his degree, which is probably very true. He then proceeded to criticize the House of Commons as not really being a forum for debate so much as it is a facility for the procedural exchange of reports – “going through the motions,” as it were – again, probably true. He went on to explain that he felt most at home whenever he was heckled, as he found it a rare moment of genuine interaction that reminded him of his debating days.

The question is this: which was it that induced his reminisces of rhetorical competition – the interaction, or the heckling?

It may, in part, be the latter. Anyone who has done a half-hour’s reading on Rob Anders knows that he has a reputation of being, in many ways pertaining to extroversion and tact, the Mike Hudema of the federal right. In other words, he is for all intents and purposes a heckler, though sometimes in a non-verbal way; and as we should all know by now, acts of discourse – especially heckles, which are really just performatives of dissenting interruption – are never limited to the realm of the verbal.

But how does this relate to debating? After all, are heckles not frowned upon at the upper echelons of competition?

Well, yes and no. If my understanding of Western Canadian debating history is correct, while heckling is now all but non-existent except for its occasional acknowledgment as a discouraged annoyance, it was once a far more prevalent factor. Over the years, and I believe for the better, Western Canada has been borrowing more from the inertia of an evolved Canadian Parliamentary convention and exposure to Worlds Style, and less from the high school environment. This was not always the case.

Observe the occasional Alberta high school tournament that is conducted in impromptu parliamentary style. Unless expressly instructed to do so, inexperienced debaters will heckle simply on the grounds that the rules say they won’t be penalized (and layperson judges may even be inclined to reward them for wrangling a provision of the format). Without a dominant inertial format, or better yet, a strong emphasis on substantive analytical matter, high school style spills over into university.

You can still see this happen today with something that feels uncomfortably different at first, but is at the end of the day hardly that big a deal: at the University of Saskatchewan, which is hosting the McGoun Cup next year, Points of Information are directed through the chairperson. As something that has been phased out of the rest of Western Canada, this procedural difference has actually become the distinguishing mark of what is a unique Saskatchewanian style. My understanding is that this is actually something carried over from the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association, which governs all secondary school debate in the province – hence its usefulness as an illustrative example.

It could very well be the case that heckling was a commonplace tactic, albeit perhaps heavily abused, in the early 1990s when western integration into the CUSID environment was in its infancy at best. According to Alberta alumnus Martin Kennedy, who by my reckoning was around when Rob Anders was active at the UCSDS, western involvement in national-level intervarsity debating was practically limited to occasional appearances at Winter Carnival and Nationals.

At the tail end of the Anders speech when the floor was opened to questions, and afterwards, several of my peers commented that he perhaps put a disproportionate emphasis on the system of political parties. It is true that most of his speech was a case for political parties as the best, and indeed the only, medium by which one could ever hope to have a political voice. (In other words, if you ever get Rob Anders and Steve Smith together in the same room, bring popcorn.) A lot of people seemed to find these admittedly pragmatic remarks terribly interesting, and not just because Louman-Gardiner/Pauls had just defeated Kawanami/Kotovych in a quarterfinal on public funding of elections that covered exactly those issues of partisan imbalance. In the meantime, his aforementioned statements on the subject of heckling seemed to go largely unnoticed, but this here observer found them to be just as notable, if not more so.

But the great irony of all this ballyhoo about partisanship lies elsewhere. Of a panel of seven, Anders was one of four adjudicators in the final round who awarded the victory to Teddy Harrison and his partner, Spencer “Slate-Killer” Keys.

As for my own performance at the tournament, let it be known that it was less than spectacular. I credit the failure of Guillaume Laroche and myself to break to quarterfinals to a disastrous misjudgment of the depth to which Chris Jones had studied Alberta private investigation licenses in somewhat more rigour than yours truly. “I’m sorry to tell you, Nick,” he said, “but life is not a Philip Marlowe novel.” Lies, I tell you, all lies.


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