Once upon a time, people used to assemble in lecture halls and auditoriums to hear a speaker. They would sit unimaginably close to one another, exhaling with abandon into each other’s airspace. It was an odd feature of those times that hardly anyone wanted to sit in the front row, as if the speaker had a contagious disease that could travel only a few feet. That empty front row foreshadowed the future.
Usually, the speaker was someone who everyone liked or at least tolerated. But every now and then, the person at the podium was deeply disliked by some audience members. Since glaring provided insufficient satisfaction to these people, they felt morally obligated to shout to keep the speaker from being heard.
Of course, now we would be distraught about the droplets that flew through the air from this vocalized protest. But those were different days.
Back in those days, the custom of shouting to silence a speaker made me utterly miserable. Since I was rarely the target of the shouting myself, there was really no need for me to borrow trouble. But I had complicated my life with an affection for the First Amendment, a sentiment that I cannot shed.
And yet it never occurred to me that my affection for free speech required me to welcome every word that a speaker said. In fact, if I found a speaker’s words repellent, then it was even more important to refuse that person the joy she would have felt if permitted to go around, after her interrupted speech, complaining that she had been silenced.
So what could I do to ensure that speakers got heard?
If controversy seemed to be in the picture, I would make an opening announcement that the host organization, the Center of the American West, welcomed and encouraged the expression of dissent. But we asked people to respect our preference for “respiratory protest.”
In other words, people who did not like the speaker should protest by sighing with exasperation, snorting with contempt, gasping with disbelief, or — maybe most effective of all — yawning with pure, oratory-induced fatigue.
With respiratory protest, the dissenters could register their disapproval through the wondrously expressive power of inhalation and exhalation, and the speaker could still be heard. At the end of the talk, I could make the most of the available time by reading aloud the questions that people had written on index cards. When distrust and hostility saturated a question, to the best of my ability, I would convey these emotions when I read that question.
But in 2020, two developments knocked respiratory protest for a loop: Audiences no longer assemble in rooms to hear speakers and tragic events have undermined the humor that was essential to an audience’s acceptance of this eccentric practice.
In 2020, thousands of people have said “I can’t breathe” because the coronavirus has attacked their lungs. Meanwhile, a smaller but still significant number of people have said, “I can’t breathe” because another human being has applied pressure to their respiratory passages.
Respiratory protest seemed well-suited to the 2010s. But it has been relieved of its duties in 2020 and placed under a moratorium. For the open and civil forums we will need to create “a new normal,” I hope we’ll find something to take its place.
Patty Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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