gender, other topics, politics


As is customary, I am using the approach of the new year as an excuse to look back at the old one and make some sort of sense of it.


It is entirely possible that, when historians of the future look back, they will declare unequivocally that the year 2017 was the most important year in human history, the year when everything, and everyone, changed – and on the whole, for the better.


Of course today it is too soon to make that pronouncement, but it suddenly makes sense – a very possible reality rather than a dream. We will know by then that 2017 was the year in which women became willing and able to trust, help, and like other women. From that visceral change sprang all the other changes. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Who Makes Meaning?


A conversation (meaning any form of communication – private or public; written or spoken; physical or electronic) is properly constructed so as to transmit meaning between or among participants. It is often thought that a speaker is responsible for encoding meaning, and a hearer’s job is simply to understand what a speaker says. But it’s a more complicated relationship: it is the speaker’s responsibility to encode meanings in such a way that a hearer is likely to be able to understand them as the speaker intended; and it is the hearer’s responsibility to bring her experiences to bear so as to make sense of the communication: meaning is jointly constructed.


This is necessarily true because human beings are social animals. By working in this cooperative way, language (and other forms of interpersonal communication) both make the best use of our social capacities, and enhance them. Uncooperative communication does the opposite: it drives us apart.


In our current political (and specifically presidential) discourse, there are violations of those expectations and needs. Continue reading

language, politics

Donald Trump, the Poet


Opinion is divided on Donald Trump’s talk. His supporters are enthusiastic: “He tells it like it is.” “He’s tough.” “He speaks my language.” They like the Trump they think they see and hear: a man whose linguistic roughness is a promise of nonverbal toughness in our next President. For them, the harshness and cruelty that characterize so much of Trump’s speaking style signal that the man is no “political correctness”-hugging sissy.


Intellectuals, the commentariat, and media personalities have another view. To them, Trump is your basic vulgarian: no topic is too low, no slander too gross, no prejudice too retrograde for him to exploit; and even when he isn’t spouting off offensively, his language lacks grammar, and his arguments lack cohesion, trickling off without a point, other than the incessant one about the speaker’s greatness, largeness, and hugeness. They sneer openly about the common man (or woman) who is taken in. But even as they inveigh against him, the amount of attention they devote to criticizing him suggests that they are just as captivated by The Donald as everyone else – they just can’t admit it.


These Trumpian perspectives would seem to have little in common It’s hard to think of a candidate about whose speaking style public opinion differs so sharply. Why do Americans find it so hard to understand what the man is up to? Continue reading

gender, language, politics

No Excuses, Please!



Since Deborah Tannen introduced the distinction a quarter-century ago (in You Just Don’t Understand), it has become a cultural platitude to say that men, unlike women, won’t ask for directions. But there is a less recognized way that the genders part company directionally: everyone finds it necessary to give women, but not men, directions — not physical directions, but instructions about how to behave. Apparently many still believe that women are interactionally incompetent, and so cannot be trusted to get anything right unless they are told exactly how to do absolutely everything.


If the women do what they are told and it turns out well, their instructors get the credit. If the women ignore the advice, then they get the blame if it turns out badly. If it turns out well, they are still criticized because it could have been better, if only they’d been good girls and listened. So once again, no matter what women do, they do it wrong. Continue reading

gender, language, politics

Sexing Up 2016



In the February 1 issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza compares-and-contrasts Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in a story as enlightening as it is disturbing. One paragraph describes a Trump rally in Mississippi, noting some of the accouterments sported by Trump’s fan base:


Popular buttons and stickers included ones that say, “If she can’t please her husband, she can’t please the country,” “Bomb the hell out of ISIS,” “Up Yours Hillary,” and “Trump That Bitch.”


We know that Trump’s followers, like their idol, are a loutish lot; that we are engaged in a presidential election campaign; and that in election campaigns, tempers flare, etiquette goes by the boards, and opponents are demonized. From that perspective, the anti-Hillary slogans were hardly worthy of remark. But there was something about them that is different from the usual slams against opponents, and unlike the usual tenor of negative campaign rhetoric: the strikingly sexual nature of the attacks. Cruz may be “disgusting,” Bush “low energy,” and Cruz (gasp) “not nice.” But neither Trump nor anyone else has had anything to say about his male opponents’ sexual prowess or proclivities in bed. Since Clinton is not running for a position in which the victor is expected to perform sexually, why do candidates and voters opposed to Clinton choose to attack her in sexualized rhetoric? Certainly men, even male politicians, are sexual creatures. But politics is public, and sexuality – so we like to believe – is private. Usually prying into a candidate’s intimate life would be considered invasive and inappropriate. Why is the private allowed to invade the public only when a candidate is female? Continue reading

gender, language, politics

Nice and Tough

An article on the first page of the News section of the January 17 New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton’s advisers regret that she did not go negative sooner and harder against Bernie Sanders. I beg to differ.


The problem, as so often, is that the Clinton team has a great deal of experience in previous presidential campaigns. At first glance that may look self-contradictory: isn’t it a good thing to have lots of prior experience in practically anything, but especially high-level politics? Well, yes, it usually is, but not in cases, like the 2016 campaign, in which the similarities with past campaigns are very likely illusory because of the one big difference, gender, that makes everything different.

Continue reading

language, politics

The Carson-Trump Twins


To understand Ben Carson’s surge, you have to compare-and-contrast him with Donald Trump.


Carson and Trump are twins, fraternal rather than identical. On the surface, in terms of style, they appear as different as can be; more deeply, in terms of the content of their utterances, they are very similar. Both specialize in grand displays of egomania; turning the tables on anyone who gives them trouble; making great promises without any indications of how they would carry them out; making bombastic statements about history backed by less than no knowledge; bullying – Trump through direct verbal intimidation, Carson more subtly, by invoking the race card – there is the possibility hanging in the air that if anyone goes after him, he will attribute the attack to racism; as well as the Science card – i.e., he’s so brilliant! He couldn’t be wrong! For both, these strategies make them invincible. Continue reading