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Boo-etiquette: when is it rude to boo?

Dave Gordon - Tuesday, 30 December, 2014

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When is it OK to boo a public official, and when is it downright rude?

Lately, New York Mayor Bill deBlasio was booed by officers at a police graduation ceremony.

According to Time Magazine, it was the latest protest from officers against the Mayor, who in recent weeks harshly criticized police, and found to be sympathetic to anti-police protestors.

(Previously, thousands of cops turned their backs to the Mayor during a pair of funerals for slain police officers.)

Why, some may ask, is this such a big deal, when the United States so fiercely protects free speech?

On the one hand, police are exercising their democratic right in demonstrating in a way that shows the Mayor – and the public – the police’s emphatic disapproval.

As private citizens, cops might not have that luxury otherwise, because as city employees they have to maintain political neutrality, and because their union could have rules about what a cop is permitted to say publicly.

On the other hand, there are far less unruly ways to express resentment than booing.

I’d think it’d be a brilliant tactical move of peaceful passive resistance if the officers at the ceremony turned their heads away when the Mayor spoke.

Another stark, and powerful message that the media would have photographed, is if the anti-Mayor police officers all gave the “thumbs-down” during deBlasio’s speech.

That photo, like the one of the officers turning their backs, could have appeared on the front pages.

When police are symbols of authority, whose position demands respect, it speaks more to their gravitas if they refrained from booing as if they were at a hockey game.

In this clip (also below) authors Caroline Glick and Alan Dershowitz duked it out verbally on stage at last year’s Jerusalem Post conference, over whether former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert deserved to be zealously booed by the audience.

The tipping point was when Olmert, the keynote at the New York conference, spoke about “painful concessions to the Palestinians.”

For Alan Dershowitz, booing was an impolite gesture towards a former head of state: “you’re part of the problem, not the solution… This was a prime minister. I think booing ideas and a person isn’t respectful.”

Caroline Glick, on the other hand, saw booing as a way to show disapproval.

“Shame on you! You want to talk to Jimmy Carter who calls Israel an Apartheid state, but you don’t want to talk to people who support Israel? You’re a champion of free speech but you won’t let us have free speech? Come on!”

How, precisely, can we alert a speaker when they’ve said something grossly unappealing, if not through booing?

Of course, one must be judicious: just because there’s a disagreement, or a difference of opinion, doesn’t merit disturbing a person’s talk.

There are limits to booing.

In the example of prime minister Olmert, the audience booed so loudly, so raucously, that they drowned out the speaker, practically not allowing him to continue. It is downright rude to disrupt a speaker.

A good benchmark for this would be to ask oneself: if somebody I highly respect saw me do this, would they approve?

Booers should make their point swiftly, and then extend the speaker the courtesy of the podium.

As sure as booers want the right of free speech, a speaker should be accorded that right too.

If someone feels so adamant that the words said at the dais are so beyond the pale, they are free to leave the auditorium, out of protest.

Another booing rule is that a person should not be booed just for showing up.

That is a kind of unwarranted personal attack.

In this example in Nov. 2014, a photo of President Obama flashed on a screen during a public service announcement at a Michigan ball game, prompting some people to boo.

When Obama sat in the bleachers at a Maryland basketball game in 2013, he was also received with boos.

My case: it’s fine to boo a television; not fine to boo a head of state in person -- unless he has said something egregiously offensive, then and there, to deserve it.

One must respect the office of the president, regardless of political differences.

People somehow believe that if you’re anonymous and joined by a chorus of boos in a stadium, it’s fine to embarrass the president.

The message is analogous to this “I don’t like you, or what you stand for, so I’m going to make noises.” This is child-like behaviour on the edge of verbal assault.

Even I, no fan of Obama’s, would not boo at the man for his mere presence.

I cannot imagine if Obama had been strolling through a park, that any one of those individuals seeing him would boo at him, even if they felt they wanted to. This is common courtesy.

I’m equally certain that most decent people – even those who disdain the president – would shake his hand if he extended it. It’s understood to be polite and respectful. (In fact, in Jewish tradition, not receiving someone’s hand is considered to be excessively rude to the extent it’s akin to humiliation.)

So why not extend him the courtesy of basic respect in a stadium, if he’s doing nothing but enjoying a game?

It’s not like he’s Kim Jung-Un or a horrible world leader of that ilk.

It’s one thing to boo a stated idea, if that stated idea is beyond the pale.

It’s another entirely to boo an elected leader, simply because they happen to be under the same roof.


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