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.


This set of assumptions is all too well illustrated in the current primary campaign. Everyone is tumbling over one another to give Hillary Clinton advice about everything – how she talks, what she talks about, how much she smiles, how she dresses…. The advisers are ignoring a relevant truth: she has been in politics since many of them were in onesies, at the highest levels and generally with great success, so she just might know more than they do about how she ought to campaign and what will work best for her. It doesn’t matter: she is female so she needs direction, and stinging criticism if she doesn’t do as they demand, forcing them to expound on what she got wrong.


The males in similar positions do not become the recipients of helpful hints. Although Trump and Cruz have been twitted for their interactional styles, and Sanders for his rumpled and “grandfatherly” ways, nobody actually dictates to any of them what they ought to do and not do, although many of them could use a little help.


Unlike her male rivals, Clinton is not running as an individual. She is required to represent all women, especially those in or seeking positions of power. Hence it is not surprising that the kind of gratuitous advice given to Clinton is also lavished on women more generally. Etiquette manuals are and always were directed mostly at women; the same is true of a genre of literature, “training manuals”: novels intended for girls and young women, encouraging them to model themselves after the virtuous female characters and shun the ways of the bad ones – or else. (Examples are Little Women and Vanity Fair.) I can’t think of analogous books directed at young male readers.


More recently, a genre of popular nonfiction has arisen for the same audience, directed at the way women speak – actually or purportedly – scolding readers for the bad things they do when they open their mouths (which women shouldn’t do anyway): vocal fry, upspeak, apologies, hedging, and so on and so on. The double bind is always there: if women attempt to follow the instructions in the manuals, it is likely that they will feel inadequate and self-conscious if they try to talk at all: everything they do is defined as wrong. But if they don’t do as they are told, they will feel like, and likely be treated like, bad women: bossy, pushy, and castrating. If you have two X chromosomes, you lose.


It is not coincidental that this overattention to women’s bad communicative ways has come into being along with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – unsurprisingly, since she is the exemplar of the powerful woman who must be brought down. The endless critique of everything Clinton does is intended as a warning shot – if you seek power, this is what you will get. You are asking for it. (Sound familiar?)


The creation of Clinton as a communicative bogeywoman is one source of the lack of enthusiasm from women about her candidacy, especially since it appears to be mostly younger women who are complaining about her, and it is younger women who most have to figure out how to be successful and female at once. Clinton should function as a positive role model for them. But they see what happens to a woman who sticks her neck out, and the excitement they should be feeling is turned to anxiety.


Consider in this light the post-Iowa treatment of Clinton vs. the males in the race. Clinton’s margin was, as we are repeatedly informed (and I do mean “repeatedly”), “razor-thin”: 49.9% to Sanders’ 49.6%. Normally one vote is enough to win, and she got more than that. Yet the wise men of the media have been caustic in their assessments of Clinton’s campaign and dismissive of her victory. On the other hand, Donald Trump – who had been loudly proclaiming himself a shoo-in – came out a rather distant second to Ted Cruz: 24% to Cruz’s 28%, a significant distance. And in fact Trump ended up in a neck-to-neck struggle for second with Rubio (23%). Yet there has been very little critique of The Donald’s campaign strategy (other than that he blew off the pre-caucus debate because of his objections to Megyn Kelly).


Here’s another puzzling fact: practically all the savants have proclaimed that Clinton did very badly in Iowa (perhaps even a harbinger – dare they hope? – of things to come). But in fact she did very well, under the circumstances. Iowa is of all the 50 states the worst one for her. Both parties skew to their extremes. Hence Cruz’s victory, which no one considers surprising. The Democrats also skew very liberal and very young (a preponderance of Iowa Democrats, especially of those who caucus, are college students). So the fact that Clinton could eke out a victory in Iowa, however thin, should not be analyzed as a failure predictive of further erosion (as it has been), but as indicative of genuine strength under the worst possible conditions.


The experts continue to pile on Clinton: on “Charlie Rose” on Tuesday night, Rose and his panelists (Matthew Dowd, Frank Bruni, David Axelrod and Susan Glasser, editor of Politico) competed with one another to excoriate the Clinton campaign and expound on what went “wrong.” She didn’t have a message; her message was about the past, not the future; her arguments were too complicated for the poor voter to follow. She had to change, and pronto. This attitude is captured in the last paragraph of Bruni’s Wednesday New York Times op-ed :


Clinton needs to persuade voters that as much as they’ve seen of her, she can still lead them to a place they’ve not yet seen. She hasn’t succeeded, and she slogs on from Iowa much as she did eight years ago: with more to prove than to savor.


These are, by the way, the same gurus who elsewhere complain that our current political discourse is too issue-free and simplistic (as it certainly is). They rightly criticize Trump and his Republican rivals, for overlooking the complexities of issues in favor of razzle-dazzle hyperbole. Clinton has discussed and offered solutions to a very wide array of problems. Does she get credit for it? No: her speeches have been too complex and intellectually wearying, whine the intelligentsia.


Do you begin to get the sense that she just cannot win? Even when she wins, she can’t win. She will not be allowed to win.


The same point is gleefully made in the frequent analyses of women voters, especially “younger” women. A typical example, forwarded to me by Ruth Wodak, comes from the Guardian. According to the author, who I regret to say is Jill Abramson, young women find Clinton “unexciting” and want to be “inspired.” They see her as “inauthentic” and even “untrustworthy.” These are given as “reasons” why, even if they can bring themselves to vote for her, they are not enthusiastic about her candidacy (as African Americans were about Obama’s).


But what the many such analysts offer as “reasons” to feel dubious about Clinton are not in fact reasons; they are “excuses” and should be parsed as such. Before these “reasons” become received truth, proponents need to ask themselves – or we need to ask them – whether, in fact, their disaffection is based on reasons, and reason; or whether it is just more of the same old misogyny, in the guise of rational argumentation.


To call an argument a “reason” is to presuppose that it is based on fact; otherwise, it is only an “excuse,” with no claims to truthfulness. To say that many younger women voters are unenthusiastic about Clinton for the “reason” that she is unexciting (or “inauthentic” or “untrustworthy”) is to take that argument as factual. But it is more accurate to say that that claim is merely an “excuse” for their reluctance to support her, and that the real “reason” lies elsewhere.


Donald Trump’s supporters have no trouble supporting him no matter what: they say he “tells it like it is” even after they acknowledge that he sometimes lies. I am not advocating that Clinton’s potential supporters behave in this kind of know-nothing fashion; but I am surprised they are unwilling to cut her any slack at all, to see her style as exemplary for what she is trying to do – raise the bar for political discourse – and try to accommodate to it. I am surprised that, no matter how often negative claims are disproved – Benghazi, e-mails, flip-flops – they keep coming back as “reasons” for tepid support. I am surprised that people who claim to be politically savvy can’t seem to get their heads around a simple truth: when someone has been on the national political stage for more than a quarter of a century; when she is married to a man who has, let’s say, certain issues; when she and her husband, during his presidency, were subjected to an eight-year barrage of groundless attacks; then it is likely that there will remain a residual sense of her “imperfections,” that the attacks have left a sense of “there must be something to it” even when there isn’t. Nobody else in the race has been the object of so much loathing and character assassination, so no one else seems to be “inauthentic” or “untrustworthy.” And there is at least an argument that one big reason for a quarter-century of unremitting attacks on the couple is that their behavior and the roles they play threaten to overturn our beloved and essential gender stereotypes.


There are two real problems with the communications between Hillary Clinton and the pundits and voters, both hearer-based rather than speaker-based. One is that hearers have to understand her utterances as flawed and themselves as doing her a favor by correcting them, because she is a powerful woman; and the second is that they are unable to perceive their “reasons” for disapproval as stemming from fear of a powerful woman becoming even more powerful, that is, as “excuses.” Both arise from the same noxious source, misogynistic stereotyping; and both are equally unfit to be parts of American public discourse in the twenty-first century.


It would be pleasant, would it not, if the youngsters and savants who come together to find fault with Clinton would at least ask themselves how much of their ambivalence and worse is based on some reality – i.e., if it consists of “reasons” to dislike and distrust her – and how much is really, deeply, based on a need to maintain the old gender and sexual expectations so that they don’t have to change – i.e., if it consists of mere “excuses” for feelings that have no rational basis in 2016.