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Civility and Michelle Obama’s Handling of the Heckler

Was Michelle’s Response Proper?

Was Michelle Obama’s reaction to a heckler last week an example of civility or incivility? Did she go too far in talking down a heckler while she was speaking at a private fundraising event in Northwest Washington? In case you haven’t heard, Michelle was interrupted by Ellen Sturtz, who wanted the First Lady to get the President to sign an executive order banning LGBT discrimination.

Sturtz's interruption began halfway through Obama's 20-minute speech. Obama, interrupted, paused, and proceeded to confront Sturtz face-to-face: 

"One of the things I don't do well is this," replied Michelle to loud applause. She left the lectern and moved over to the protester, saying they could "listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice." 

The crowd started shouting that they wanted Michelle to stay. 

"You need to go!" said one woman near the protester. 

The protester was then escorted out, shouting "...lesbian looking for federal equality before I die." (First part of the quote was inaudible.)

In an interview with a reporter after the event, Sturtz said she was startled by Obama's response: "Basically, I was asked by the first lady to be quiet, and I can't be quiet any longer," Sturtz said, adding, "she obviously thought she was going to make an example of me or something. I wasn't scared at all."  Sturtz also said: “She came right down in my face...I was taken aback.”

The incident exemplifies the lack of civility in society. Michelle handled it perfectly. Her message was I am speaking; I was invited to speak; others want to hear me; you are interrupting…

We have morphed into a society where individuals like Sturtz fail to consider how their actions affect others. The people in attendance did not want to hear her rants. They came to hear Michelle Obama. Regardless of the validity of one’s cause, there is a time and place for everything, and Michelle’s fundraising event was not the time to bring up one’s own agenda. Just think, if everyone acted that way in any and every fundraiser and political gathering, then we would be spending our time shouting down each other and that’s not a very civil way to behave.

Quite frankly, I think Barack Obama can learn a lesson from his wife. Her reaction to the heckling shows she is not afraid to exhibit strong character traits in public and walk the talk of leadership. The President often reverts to his ‘I have to satisfy everybody’ mode and fears he might upset one political group or another if he acts in a way that supports thoughtful actions and civility by a responsible citizenry. He has been heckled by some who show no respect for the office of presidency or for those who come to hear what Obama has to say. He needs to send a strong message, as did Michelle, that that kind of behavior should not be tolerated in a civil society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 10, 2013