This last week the White House Correspondence Dinner was once again held with the usual crude and cruel displaced attempt at humor. The guest comedian, Michelle Wolf, was disgraceful in her personal attacks, vulgar language and crude comments. All of this was done with the veiled attempt to justify it as a celebration of “freedom of speech”.
I personally do not appreciate the concept of a “roast” as an event. It is often demeaning and disrespectful. This night has historically been a night when the media pokes fun at the sitting president and he has had to sit there and smile and act like he is enjoying the event. He then must get up and recite a litany of jokes he has been provided by his writers to respond back at the White House journalist. President after president has had to go through this annual ritual. That is until Donald Trump arrived on the scene and has declined to attend these events citing that he has no interest in attending such an event where there is abject hatred for him. I personally think this has been a very wise decision considering the current toxic environment between the press and the President.
However, this year in Trump’s absence the guest comedian choose to direct her very personal attacks at people who work for the administration and were in attendance. Her comments and barbs were specifically directed at Sarah Sanders, press secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, as well as others. There has been much written about the inappropriate comments attacking Sarah Sanders appearance but I would like to look at this relative to the audience.
Reports are clear that many people in attendance felt uncomfortable with the particularly vicious attacks on Sarah Sanders. There were people laughing but there was also noticeable groans and silence. There were even reports of a few getting up and leaving.
This brings me to my concern. When and how do we live out our values?
Values are defined as - a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.
I strongly believe that if I were to survey the attendees at this event we would have an enormous support for dignity and respect for people. This group of attendees would be adamantly against bullying of anyone. They would be highly respectful of women as professionals and wives and mothers. I have no doubt at the outcome of such a survey.
However, on that night the vast majority just sat there. Yes - there was silence and some moans and afterwards some outrage but they just sat there. When is enough – enough. When should we make a statement with our feet! I am not speaking about Conservative or Progressive – Democrat or Republican – Right or Left. I am talking about people acting on their values! If our values don’t create action - are they really our values?
The depths of Ms. Wolf’s depravity and twisted attempt at humor came to a crescendo when she attempted to use aborted babies as part of her humor monologue. Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, right/left, white/black/Asian/ Hispanic – CAN WE ALL AGREE that using aborted babies in your comedy routine is not appropriate! Ms. Wolf there is nothing funny about dead babies.
Which brings me back to the audience. If we really believe bullying is wrong, racial slurs are inappropriate, attacking a person’s appearance is sickening and referring to aborted babies as funny is simply wrong then let our behaviors reflect our beliefs. Imagine the impact, if 80-90% of the crowd regardless of being pro-choice/pro-life, right/left, white/black/Asian/Hispanic had gotten to their feet and walked out on the event. This could have said to the world – free speech is important but – “Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should”.
Walking out of the event would have said, “Our values matter, and we will not sit here and participate in an event that violates our most basic values of decency and respect for people”. If our society is going to turn the toxic environment in our culture around we need to walk out of events that are disrespectful, crude and profane. We need to turn the channel on the TV when discussion turns to screaming at each other or politicians (including Mr. Trump) make personal attacks. And finally, comedians who are called “edgy” should be recognized for what they are -crude and vulgar and not funny.
Values are only important if our behaviors reflect those values. True leaders live out their values through their behaviors. We must always remember the quote by the great parliamentarian Sir Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In this specific case, I believe people needed to literally “Walk-the-Talk.”
To hear more about Values and leadership check out my new book Essentials of Leadership: A Systematic Approach to Effective Leadership.