Hey, down in front!: Heckling doesn’t work

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Another week, another “Obama interrupted by a heckler” story. Only this time it was Michelle who received the honors. At a fundraiser in Washington, Michelle Obama was repeatedly interrupted by Ellen Sturtz, a gay rights activist demanding Michelle make President Obama sign an anti-discrimination executive order. Michelle Obama unceremoniously, but effectively shut her down by saying “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have a choice.” The other people in the crowd chose the First Lady.

While I sympathize with her cause, someone should tell this woman, and, “Get Equal”, the group that put her there, that their tactic is a waste of time and energy (and money).

Heckling has probably been around forever. The inability for people to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate times to speak up are universal to the human condition and there will always be a person who can’t help him or herself. The use of “plants”, people put into a situation where they are specifically meant to cause a ruckus for the advancement of some agenda, is newer but still not unheard of. Presumably it is meant to bring attention to a pet cause or injustice by hijacking the spotlight from a person who already has attention. Ellen Sturtz knew this would be talked about on twitter and in blogs, that’s why she did it. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell her that her cause isn’t the type to be aided by heckling. Gay Rights has about as much attention as any cause in the country right now. Heckling doesn’t work passed that.

In this way, heckling is like terrorism. It typically doesn’t work, it’s counterproductive to the intended goals of the person employing it, but it is incredibly common. As with terrorism, heckling is a sure way to sever any chance of ever coming to a compromise. It takes the debate away from the “issue” and into the realm of personal violations, vendettas and pride. Terrorism emboldens the victims and makes them dig in their heels because any concession is now viewed as a “win” for the other side, a side that has just violently “wronged” you. Instead of listening to the terrorists’ demands, the victims end up invading Afghanistan. Heckling elicits a similar response. Instead of listening to your concerns, the victim ignores them on principle.

The mock outrage that Ellen Sturtz expressed after the event was really the puzzler. She not only made herself look extremely rude, but if she were taken at face value (she shouldn’t be), she’s also idiotic. What did she expect Obama to do? Tracy Clayton at theroot.com put it best:

Sturtz…stated that she was “taken aback” by Obama’s response, because apparently the idea that she would do anything besides hand Sturtz the microphone and get her husband on the phone is surprising.

But like terrorism, heckling is (relatively) cheap. It doesn’t take much to get a lot of attention. If attention is all you want, whether for recruitment purposes, or simple megalomania, then it is an attractive choice. But to say with a straight face that you did this for gay rights is disingenuous. For one thing, you are heckling Michelle Obama, not her husband. She, presumably, has some sway when it comes to his opinions but probably very little in actual policy outcomes. Second, you are screaming at a President who has done more for gay rights than any other President in history and likely even the rest combined. Let’s face it, even the folk hero, Bill Clinton, presided over a presidential term that saw “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” AND “Defense of Marriage Act” passed. And George W. Bush was worse. You could be frustrated at Obama’s slowness in fully getting behind the gay rights movement (I certainly am), but this isn’t exactly the Iraqi citizen defiantly throwing a shoe at George W. Bush, Obama is a misplaced target.

So on the whole, this act of rudeness accomplished nothing. Fortunately for Ellen Sturtz, her goal of equal rights will most likely succeed anyway (and a new poll shows most people think that it is inevitable), but she will have done nothing to help it come about. If she really wanted to help she would find ways to work with an administration that has shown a willingness to work towards equality rather than grandstanding and alienating the people she needs to help her achieve her goal.

For goodness sake, sit down, shut up, and do something.

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