Michelle Obama, 1; Heckler, 0

People have lost the ability to distinguish between speaking truth to power and just being a jerk.

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(Evan Vucci/AP)
First lady Michelle Obama gestures as she speaks during a visit to Savoy Elementary School in Washington, Friday, May 24, 2013. The Savoy School was one of eight schools selected last year for the Turnaround Arts Initiative at the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Turnaround Arts Schools use the arts as a central part of their reform strategy to improve low performing schools. (Evan Vucci/AP)

I'm so over hecklers.

I don't care what their cause is, how sincere they are or how passionate they are about their respective issues. There are other, far more productive ways to express one's commitment and passion, and they don't require something as childish and self-centered as interrupting someone when he or she is giving a public speech or running a congressional hearing.

It's actually worse for public officials than it is for the rest of us. First, most of us are not heckled at work (though I'm fascinated with the scenario, Seinfeld-wise, of someone showing up at someone else's office and launching into a loud verbal criticism of their work). Secondly, most of us, if we were interrupted while, say, giving a eulogy or wedding reception speech would say, "Hey! Bonehead! Shut the hell up!"

For presidents or first ladies, the equation is more difficult. Ignoring or chiding the rude person feeds, absurdly, into the narrative that said official is not listening to "real people." Never mind that "real people" get the chance to have their individual and collective says at the ballot box, at town meetings and in the letters to the editor sections of newspapers. The Internet has taken it a step further, enabling cowards and cranks who want to write some racist or uninformed or offensive "comment" without attaching a name to said remark.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The Internet theoretically gives everyone the right to be heard, adding to the cacophony of voices. So people become even more vitriolic in their rhetoric or more disruptive in person. The result is that people have lost the ability to distinguish between speaking truth to power and just being a jerk. It's tainted the work done by sincere practitioners of civil disobedience, who actually take personal risks to make a point. They don't just act like children and dare fellow adults to discipline them.

So what's an official to do – let the heckler take over the event? Or look out-of-touch by ignoring the heckler?

What Michelle Obama did the other night was brilliant, since she did neither. Instead, she walked away from the microphone and addressed the disrupter personally, saying:

Listen to me, or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The crowd, assessing who would be the better speaker, the first lady or the heckler, sided with Obama – and the heckler was escorted out.

This is not Michelle Obama acting like a candidate or a Democrat or a diva. This is when it's clear that Obama is a mother. Her response is pretty much exactly what my mother would have said – or at least she would have delivered something with the same no-nonsense tone. I had two of the most permissive parents in modern history, but had I behaved that way at a school assembly, I would still be in reform school today. Obama was rightly insisting on basic manners, and while it's unfortunate that an adult woman was acting like a child by interrupting a formal speech, the heckler bought it on herself.

The disruptive person, identified by the Washington Post as Ellen Sturtz, told the paper that Obama "came right down in my face. I was taken aback." It's about time a heckler wasn't rewarded for such self-centered behavior.

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