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joanna weiss

The power of contact

Michelle Obama was heckled at a private fund-raising event Tuesday.

Associated Press

Michelle Obama was heckled at a private fund-raising event Tuesday.

My daughter and I just finished reading “Wonder,” the beautiful middle-grade bestseller about the power of personal contact: what happens when you interact with someone different, instead of looking the other way. And suddenly, I feel compelled to talk to strangers — to finally introduce myself to that family we keep seeing at the beach; to approach the people making origami at the coffee shop, and ask them how they’re doing it, and why.

These small gestures aren’t always easy to make in New England, where the privacy ethos is strong. But when I reach out, people seem surprised and pleased. They’re happy to be drawn into someone else’s life.

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Face-to-face contact means a lot, as a couple of news events proved this week. First, Whitey Bulger’s lawyers made the clever decision to let him address his jury pool, offering quiet “good mornings” and “good afternoons” that prompted cheerful responses. For potential jurors, it must have been jarring, to square the sudden knowledge that the famous gangster — mysterious and mythical and terrible and grand — was that polite old guy in the courtroom, wearing sneakers and jeans.

Then came Michelle Obama, who was heckled by an activist at a Democratic fund-raiser on Tuesday, and responded by storming off the podium and into the activist’s personal space. “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving,” Obama said, daring the stranger to take ownership of her rude behavior, and daring the crowd to choose between them.

The first lady won the standoff, but reactions were mixed. Some people will always accuse her of being “angry,” a word loaded with coded meaning. Even some of her fans thought she was impolitic here, too quick to show her temper, especially in contrast to her glacier-cool husband.

The president handles interruptions with Obamaesque detachment, seeming to understand that heckling comes with the job. He tends to float above the insult, gently chiding protesters from the safe distance of his podium, or even — as he did during his May 23 speech on drones — giving a heckler credit for expressing her views.

“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said as security pulled CODE Pink activist Medea Benjamin away. He even mentioned Benjamin, extemporaneously, at the end of his speech, a gesture that looked generous, but also confirmed his detachment. He was the power-holder, the one who got to make the big decisions. She was the one who questioned those decisions from below.

In some circles, Michelle Obama’s very different response has made her a near folk hero, a proud symbol of someone who’s not going to take it anymore. But the real wonder of her action wasn’t her visible irritation. It was the way she made the interaction personal. Suddenly, she and her heckler, gay-rights activist Ellen Sturtz, weren’t just players in a standard power game. They were two people, standing on exactly the same level, interacting as humans.

Sturtz, who had paid a handsome fee for the chance to interrupt the event, was clearly surprised. “It felt like she was within a few inches — in my face,” she told ABC News.

That’s not a place most hecklers expect to be. Lately, it’s not where most of us expect to be. We’re getting less and less accustomed to face-to-face contact, whether we live in New England or not. We voice civic displeasure by “signing” online petitions and joining Facebook groups. We conduct arguments online, sometimes anonymously, so that we can hurl fury without having to see anyone’s reactions.

And then, every once in awhile, we’re forced to see each other eye to eye. Sturtz doesn’t seem especially ashamed, but the event has launched a flurryof conversation about the tactics of activism, the usefulness of heckling, the difference between civil disobedience and epithet-hurling.

It was, at the least, a moment for pause — the same kind of re-setting of perspective that Whitey Bulger is hoping for in court. There’s a reason our justice system forces a jury to gaze at the defendant throughout a trial, to announce a verdict while standing in his presence. Personal contact can’t right every wrong or erase every conflict. But it can always make us think.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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