The recent White House Correspondent’s Dinner once again raises the question of limits on acceptable speech. Comedian Michelle Wolf received large amount of criticism for her sometimes scathing remarks about the sitting President and others in the White House.
While (I assume) you are not likely to be performing on such a national stage, there are things you can learn from her performance that can help you set your limits.
Focus On Your Audience
Ms. Wolf went off point in her remarks. The White House Correspondents Association hired her for a specific event, but at the beginning she made it clear she was talking not to the people in the room but to the nation watching on their televisions and computers. As a result, her audience, the audience in the room, may have felt ignored. (Or wished she had ignored them.) Ignoring someone tempts them to tune out and ignore you in return.
You don’t have that choice unless you go on television. You are better served with tailoring your comments to your target audience. That may be the people in front of you or a group you identify if you-tubing it. Engage their interest so they want to continue listening to you.
If you make your audience uncomfortable, you lose them. Alter course.
Attacks Are Off Limits
Comedians frequently push the limits, and Ms. Wolf turned the event into a scathing attack on the President and current administration. This mirrored the bitter partisan politics that currently divides the country and did nothing to show a better way.
Attacks lead to conflict, grudges and other negative consequences. You have the right to express your opinion, but attacking people doesn’t serve anyone well.
When criticizing or poking fun at someone, I defer to the David Letterman rule that says you can make fun of something a person chooses to do but not something over which they have no control. For example, you could make fun of the clothes Ms. Wolf wore but not her shrill voice. When overstepping the limits on identity over choice, you risk damaging a person’s self esteem and creating hard feelings or open conflict. Some people harbor grudges for a long time.
Criticizing a woman’s appearance is especially fraught these days. One big argument over the way women are treated centers on the constant focus on women’s appearances.
Protect your own dignity by valuing others. Attack issues and ideas, not people.
Consider The Possible Effect Of Your Words
This goes hand in hand with the attacks. You have the responsibility to monitor your words to achieve the desired effect.
When you speak, you know your intent. Your audience filters your words through different lenses and can easily hear something entirely different. You are responsible for clearly conveying your intent.
Unfortunately Ms. Wolf failed to consider some of her words. For example, she received a lot of criticism for making fun of Sarah Sanders’ smoky eyes. I imagine most people heard it as an insult, especially as the joke fell amidst so much sarcasm and negative humor. In a radio interview a few days later she stated she loves Ms. Sander’s smoky eyes and meant it as a compliment. This careless wording provided additional fodder for those who were offended.
Vulgarity Offends Many
A number of talking heads and pundits remarked on the level of vulgarity and raunchiness in the performance. This surprised me a bit as acceptable vulgarity limits appear to have dropped to basement levels. You hear vulgar and raunchy words everywhere these days. Some claim it is good because it is honest. Others say it violates long held opinions and limits on decency. Still others compare it to adolescent bathroom humor. Some people find vulgar people smarter while others say the opposite. There appears to be an age gap when defining acceptable limits on vulgarity, with (stereotypically) younger people ignoring any limits and (stereotypically) middle aged and older people bemoan the rampant vulgarity. Exceptions abound on both sides. (Full disclosure: I do not enjoy vulgar or raunchy talk and tune out.)
Before engaging in a lot of vulgar or raunchy language, make sure you know your audience. Adopt an attitude of “when in doubt, leave it out.” You lose credibility when you alienate your audience.
Limits Do Not Deter Amusement
Be aware of the effect you want to create. How do you want people to think of you based on what you say? You can present yourself as smart and amusing while respecting the perceived limits of decency. You make the choice.
What Does This Have To Do With Respect?
Clearly, Ms. Wolf’s performance stirred up a fire storm. Viciously attacking people oversteps the limits of decency and should be avoided. Just because entertainers and politically motivated talking heads do it doesn’t mean you should. It always pays to maintain respect for the person and protect their dignity.