‘A Perpetual Hissing’
Notes on an unfavorite practice


A few nights ago, I had an interesting hissing experience. I was in a movie theater, and a preview for W. came on — this is the film about President Bush by Oliver Stone, the leftist director. The hissing was very strange: sort of tentative, unsure. It seemed to me that my neighbors were confused. They wanted to hiss the subject of the film, Bush, because they hate him. But they didn’t want to hiss the film itself — which they were sure to like. They were kind of caught. So what came out of them was a half hissing, or trial hissing: Should we hiss or not, gang? Amusing, actually.

But there is nothing amusing about hissing in general, as far as I’m concerned. It is one of my least favorite practices, and it may well be one of yours. I have written on this subject in my column for National Review Online from time to time. Once I wrote, “I grew up with the sound of the Left hissing.” That was a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. In my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. — a small citadel of the Left — hissing was de rigueur. They hissed at what they didn’t like, and what they didn’t like was usually conservative, or politically incorrect, or otherwise nonconforming. They especially hissed in movie theaters — not the ones out in the malls, but the ones on campus. (The University of Michigan.)

When I wrote specifically about Ann Arbor and hissing, I received an e-mail from Gilbert, Ariz. The man said, “I have heard hissing only in Ann Arbor. And it stands to reason that creepy ideological people should adopt this odious reptilian practice.” He added that there was no hissing in Gilbert.

But there is definitely hissing beyond Ann Arbor! For example, it is common on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I live, and where I saw the preview for W. Hissing, wherever it takes place, is always, or almost always, hateful. It is sinister, menacing, sneaky, insidious. (Note how those words sound like hissing itself.) It is sort of anonymous, hiding itself, rather than being out in the open. I like what another reader — not from Gilbert — wrote me: “Hissing is underhanded, and it expresses disapproval without accountability. People can hiss with their lips and jaws in a neutral position — and they can drown out that which is disapproved while obscuring the source.”

When people hiss as a group, the specter of the mob is raised: bullying, united, dangerous. Group hissing is an expression of groupthink. Booing, certainly by individuals, is far better, I believe: It is more forthright. But best, of course, is neither booing nor hissing. If you can’t stand what is being presented, you can leave (i.e., vote with your feet).

Hissing is almost surely as old as man — who may well have gotten it from snakes. There is plenty of hissing in the Hebrew Bible, for example in Jeremiah: where people have been caused to “make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing.” There is plenty of hissing in Shakespeare, too, where both snakes and people hiss — at speakers, at ideas, and so on. Caliban says, “Sometime am I all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness.” I know the feeling. And the hissing in Milton’s Paradise Lost is horrible to ear, mind, and heart. Recall just one instance: when we hear “from innumerable tongues a dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn.”

Now and then, hissing can be benign — as in vaudeville, when you hiss the villain, who has entered twirling his mustache. But how often do you watch vaudeville? In movie houses, my neighbors hiss anything and everything, starting with the ads for Coke. It’s not just that they don’t like ads in theaters, which is understandable; it’s that they don’t like all that Coke represents (or so I would wager). And, of course, they hiss anything they consider objectionable in the main feature itself. A man from Madison, Wis. — another small citadel of the Left — wrote me to say that he once tried rebuking his hissing neighbors. “Do you realize the actors can’t hear you?” he said. “Or are you just advertising your virtue? Now that we know you’re virtuous, can the rest of us enjoy the movie?”

One time, on the Upper West Side, there was no hissing — like the dog not barking. And it was so remarkable, I wrote about it in my NRO column, on June 24, 2002. An ad for the Marines came on before a movie. My stomach tightened: Uh-oh. And no one hissed. There was not so much as the beginning of an ess. I wrote that this showed something different about the culture, for surely they would have hissed pre-9/11. The non-hissing took place more than six years ago, of course. What would the Marines bring today?


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