One of the most remarkable and precious things about our republic is our right to confront our government. In fact, it is our sacred duty to do so when we can no longer countenance the insufficiencies of said government.
Unfortunately, we must occasionally tolerate the excesses of impassioned protest at the expense of civility.
Along with the right to confront and the right of free speech, we have the “right” to make a complete fool of ourselves, to say hurtful, unwise disrespectful and intolerant things. Revolution is seldom pretty.
Short of revolution, we may protest that which is intolerable. Perhaps that protest is standing as quiet sentinels in a public place. Perhaps it is refusing to do business with corporations we find unethical. Perhaps it is sending letters to our representatives.
Legal protests can also become repugnant, vulgar and shameful —- Westboro, we’re talking to you here. In short, confronting the government can run the gamut from a quiet word to self-immolation.
Sadly, the more unseemly or undignified protestors attract the most attention. A case in point was the heckling First Lady Michelle Obama received at a recent Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Washington.
The heckler, identified by CNN as Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEQUAL, called on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors. This is a perfectly reasonable policy goal, and one shared by a majority of Americans.
The way Sturtz chose to make her case is far less laudable. According to multiple media sources, her hectoring emanation distracted Obama at a point in her speech when the first lady was speaking emotionally about children and their futures. So off-putting was Sturtz’s yammering that Obama threatened to leave if she didn’t shut up.
Obama, who appears to be a woman of equal parts determination and grace, responded firmly, “One of the things I don’t do well is this.”
Obama then walked toward the protester, saying she could “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving.
You all decide. You have one choice.”
Students of literature will immediately recognize this exchange for its similarity to Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII). Upon being boisterously interrupted by Orlando (with his sword drawn, demanding to be fed), Duke Senior asks him, ‘Art thou thus bolden’d, man, by thy distress? Or else a rude despiser of good manners, That in civility thou seem’st so empty?”
Once Orlando quiets down, Duke invites him to dine.
It’s not that we should always be reserved, prim, proper and demure. It’s that we should know the difference between moments that demand outrage and those that require tact. Clearly, Sturtz’s zeal got way out in front of her common sense.
To be clear, we all have a right to yell at the first lady, but the wise person picks his time and place. All Sturtz did was make a fool (a motley fool, following the Shakespearean theme) out of herself and further marginalize those who might otherwise be sympathetic to her cause.
As she clearly failed to recognize, there’s a big difference between “confronting” your government and merely “affronting” it.