gender, language, politics

Listening to Her: Reprise


A couple of weeks ago, after undergoing a lot of criticism for her “unexciting” style, candidate Clinton made a public apology: she was not, she said, a “natural” politician like her husband. The critics have made much of this remark, but have failed to understand it correctly.


It is clear that the female Clinton does not sound like her male counterpart. She is not thrilling in the way he – like the very best “natural” politicians – can be. She appeals more to the mind than to the heart, which is not how many Americans like their politics. She is not “fun.”


But a more accurate perception of the problem may be that Clinton is not a “normal” politician, as of course she is not. The normal prototypical politician is still male, and at the presidential level, that is even truer. But the way we expect a “natural” politician to appeal to us is not at all coincidentally the way we expect a “normal” politician to do so.


A successful “normal” politician is an alpha male. He does what men are expected to do, only more so. He blusters, he is bombastic, he roars, he thrusts his index finger at his audience: all indicative of power, dominance and control. He is exciting, even thrilling, in his alpha manliness. He is the ultra-manly man, and so we gladly give him symbolic power, the presidency.


Sanders, Cruz, and Trump are all versions of this ultra-manly male. But Clinton is not. Yet if she were to try out that style, would we reward her and appreciate her strength? Would we be eager to call her “Madam President”?


I tend to think not. I know, and you know, what we would call her. Once again the double bind kicks in: she’s damned if she is unexciting, and damned if she is exciting.


The problem does not reside in Clinton’s style, in anything she does or does not do. It rests with us, her audience. We do not know how to listen to a woman speaking in public or private, but especially in public and most especially when seeking a symbolically powerful position. We, her audience, need to change our style – our style of listening and our habit of expectations. This is a lot to ask, but it is what we have to do for our country.


While learning new habits of being an audience may seem new and daunting, there are examples we could learn from. Not all that long ago, as time goes, women athletes were universally the objects of ridicule and contempt: they played like girls, they lacked men’s strength, size, and muscles. They couldn’t play the man’s game, so the game they played had to be worse (since different so often computes to worse). Over millennia, people had become accustomed to games played by men’s rules, and could not imagine anything else as “just as good,” let alone better. In the 1970s, as women struggled to achieve parity in professional sports, and particularly in tennis, the experts and the fans took it for granted that women could not do what their male counterparts did, and therefore did not deserve the rewards that their male counterparts got.


But that began to change, in tennis thanks to strong and determined women like Billie Jean King, and later in other sports like basketball and soccer. Title IX, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, mandating that universities support women’s athletics equally with men’s, also made a big difference. At first audiences, trained in the old ways of observation, belittled women’s athletic performances. But gradually they came to achieve a new kind of connoisseurship: they became able to understand the women’s game as different from, but equal to, the men’s: in fact, perhaps even better than the men’s, since it substituted ingenuity and complexity for brute force.


(It’s true that not everyone has learned the new ways. The occasional troglodyte still galumphs through the primeval ooze, as reported by the New York Times. But Serena Williams’s response to the brontosaurus gets it absolutely right.)


Humans can and do learn new ways of listening and seeing. In the early 20th century, we learned to see new kinds of art, hear new kinds of music, and read new kinds of literature. Now we have to learn new ways of listening to women – in private conversation and in public rhetoric. It isn’t easy, but it’s time. When we are in the audience we have to put our newfangled listening ears on, or we will be left behind.


But just as the responsibility to create an effective campaign discourse does not belong to Clinton alone, it does not belong to her audience alone. Discourse of every kind is a 50-50 proposition. We tend to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s the speaker, the performer, who makes the meaning and provides the pleasure of a conversation or a performance, but that’s an oversimplification of how communication works. The hearer must work to create shared meaning: bring prior knowledge and shared context into the arena, understand and recognize a wide range of discursive options: irony, humor, metaphor and metonymy, and so on. Likewise, in becoming a member of an audience, whether of a play, a piece of music, or an athletic game, someone must know what to listen or look for; we must learn how and when to be thrilled, when to be bored – it doesn’t come naturally.


Therefore the pundits who opine that Clinton is “unexciting” are merely sending us the message, “I’m out of it; I don’t have a clue,” much like the critics who derided impressionist art or atonal music. How dumb they look to us today! Very soon, experts like Joe Klein will have that same archaic sound.


I mentioned recently a column in which Klein, praising John Kasich for his “modesty,” laid into Clinton for “yelling.” More recently, he goes after her again, mansplaining that she must be “patient, dignified, self-deprecating, utterly factual and brutally honest (about herself).” The two columns, a week apart, demand that Clinton be a different kind of politician than any of her rivals…but not in a good way. And Klein is diminishing Clinton in a way he does not do, and no one does, to any of the others in this or any other presidential race: he tells her what to do, thereby lessening her power, control, and dignity. And, by the way, the possibility that she can be effective and – even – exciting.


Is there a female role model who could provide Clinton with inspiration? It’s true that in recent years many women, including Clinton herself, have won decisive victories and functioned highly effectively at lower levels of politics. But Congress and governorships are very different from the presidency: they do not involve high levels of symbolism, as the presidency possesses. So even in states where drama and charisma are of great importance (like California), even the most successful candidates for state offices very often are pretty blah. Buoyed by their successes in our largest and most glamorous state, they then run for president – and get nowhere because they just don’t have what it takes. Think of Pete Wilson or Jerry Brown. Blah. (Ronald Reagan, of course, is the exception.)


Of all the women in high positions, Elizabeth Warren has, to my mind, the most dramatic and charismatic speaking style. But she would never be confused with her close theoretical counterpart, Bernie Sanders. She often speaks in a kind of stage whisper: you have to lean in to hear what she’s saying. You might think that makes her sound namby-pamby and not worth listening to, but it has a paradoxical effect. Because listeners have to make the effort of listening, it has to be worth their while, so the softness of her voice magnifies the power of her meaning.


Likewise, she projects earnestness and sincerity. She does this not by saying, à la Trump, “I AM SINCERE! I AM THE MOST SINCERE PERSON IN THE WORLD!” which would (paradoxically again) make her, as it makes him, sound markedly insincere, but she does it by indirect means: by her tone of voice, emphases, and facial expression. And because she sounds modest and demure, she is not threatening. But she is exciting, even thrilling.


Could Clinton borrow from Warren? Perhaps. I’m not advocating that she do just what Warren does – they are different kinds of people – but there are ways to be thrilling that men can’t do and women can, and she might think about what would work for her.


At the same time, we voters, her audience, have our own homework to do: we must learn to listen to her, to listen to a woman, all women, that is, learn to hear language in a new and, yes, exciting way.