Why Does the Heckler Get a Veto?

The Polymath

Communal Participation: Dialogue is best fostered by full engagement.
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Communal Participation: Dialogue is best fostered by full engagement.

By Jay Michaelson

Published December 20, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
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Jewish Book Month has just ended, and I’ve had a wonderful time crisscrossing the country on my book tour. At almost every event, there are people in the audience with tears in their eyes, and parents who come up to tell me how the book I’ve written is enabling them to be closer to their gay or lesbian children. (My book is about how our religious values support equality for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, rather than oppose it.) This is powerful stuff, and an honor.

Kudos, too, to the intrepid folks at the Jewish Book Council. When non-Jewish writers hear about a centralized national system for arranging book tour stops and paying for travel around the country, they are green with envy. And I’m not sure if folks appreciate how much Jewish identity is built at these events around the country.

There have also been some awkward moments — like when I arrived at the book fair that had created a large poster of every author but me. Or the times when the Jewish book-fair folks met opposition among their own Jewish community centers and synagogues to playing host for a book that has such a “controversial” subject (presumably unlike the right-wing and left-wing books on Israel). And so on.

Why this resistance? Well, I was told, someone might be offended. Often, though not always, that someone would be described as Orthodox — even though one of the points of my book is to engage in a productive conversation with traditionally religious people. Always, however, the “someone” has been absent, immune to conversation, and somehow unconvinced by pluralism. This is bad for the Jews.

The truth is, I’ve encountered this phenomenon before, as executive director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews, partners and allies. At some federations, multiple program officers would get very excited about supporting a project of ours, only to mysteriously stop returning my calls when the decision reached the board level. After several occurrences of this, I did some research and, lo and behold, found that someone might be offended.

This is what lawyers and policy wonks call the “Heckler’s Veto” and what some cynical Jewish professionals call the “Frummest Common Denominator.” It happens when one offended person, or the fear of creating one, can veto plans that a large majority supports, especially if said person is a donor. Thus in the name of pseudo-pluralism (that is, we should offend no one,) real pluralism is destroyed.


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