Thoughts on Heckling

Earlier this week the First Lady was heckled at a private fundraiser, and the way she handled the heckler drew both praise and criticism. I’ve seen the incident reported a couple of ways, but my impression is that the FLOTUS gave the audience (who had paid to be there) a choice between who they wanted to speak, her or Ms. Heckler. And if the heckler took over the program, the FLOTUS said, she would leave.

This NPR story suggests that lots of liberal commenters thought the FLOTUS was out of line, and not the heckler, who interrupted the First Lady’s speech about providing a better future for our children with the demand that the President sign an executive order banning discrimination against gays working for federal contractors.

Heckling is very much justified when it’s about some issue Power isn’t addressing, or is addressing stupidly. But there is a bill the President supports making its way through the legislative process that addresses the issue, and there’s a solid argument to be made that, in the long run, it’s much better to settle this matter through law than through an executive order that would be weaker and that a future POTUS could rescind. It seems to me this week’s heckler was serving no real purpose other than to hear herself heckle.

I also think interrupting a speaker should be a last resort thing. Was there going to be Q&A time after the prepared remarks? Was the First Lady planning to shake hands and schmooze a bit with the participants? In other words, would there have been another point in the program at which the heckler could have spoken her mind without interrupting the speech? If so, what was the purpose of interrupting the speech, especially at a private event?

The thing with heckling is that there’s a soft, fuzzy line between bravely speaking truth to power and just being an asshole. And, yes, perception is in the eye of the beholder. But there’s skillful and fearless heckling and asshole heckling, and to me, the heckler in question was mostly the latter.

I’ve been at events and also taken classes that were hijacked by an audience member/class participant, and sometimes the only purpose actually served is that whatever everyone else was there to see didn’t happen. And sometimes that’s a righteous thing, and sometimes it’s just rude. And well-meaning people will disagree with each other about which is what.

However, seems to me there are vocational hecklers who believe heckling is always righteous, under all circumstances, and I’m saying it isn’t. Nor should it always be condoned and encouraged. Sometimes people need to be told to stuff a sock in it and sit down.

It’s also the case that some people looking at this week’s incident see a privileged white twit disrespecting a black First Lady, and there may be something to that.

See also Michelle Obama is Awesome. Hecklers, not so much.