gender, language, politics

The “Scandal” Scandal


OK, the results are in and the word is out: Clinton, while not “guilty” of a “crime” for which she could be prosecuted, nevertheless is deserving of, and has received, a “stinging rebuke” or a “severe scolding” from James Comey, head of the FBI, for her use of a personal e-mail server rather than the State Department’s server. The Republicans have weighed in, predictably, in turn castigating Comey for not castigating Clinton enough; the Donald has tweeted at length of her “crookedness”; a bit less predictably (maybe), the media is also weighing in to the same effect. Just consider the full-frontal headline in the hard-copy edition of the Paper of Record:




The headline presupposes that “charges” would have been normal, and that the “rebuke” was deserved and appropriate, if minimal. The article, by Patrick Healy, begins:


Hillary Clinton may not be indicted on criminal charges over her handling of classified email, but the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, all but indicted her judgment and competence on Tuesday – two vital pillars of her presidential candidacy – and in the kinds of terms that would be politically devastating in a normal election year.


The silver lining for Mrs. Clinton is that this is not a normal election year.


The implication here is that Comey “all but indicted” all her judgment and competence, about everything, which his statement did not. (There is an issue, too, over the conflation of two senses of “indictment.”) But the overall point of this article, and the Times’s lead editorial, is that Clinton is guilty of severe malfeasance and lucky to have escaped the punishment she deserved; that the use of a personal email server by a Secretary of State is seriously bad behavior. But are either or both of these accusations true? And really, what is the whole “scandal” about?


What is a “crime” the commission of which justifies “indictment” and punishment, and Donald’s “crooked”? (Trump is qualified to make use of this epithet – it takes one to know one.) Normally a behavior is “criminal” just in case it is done deliberately and someone is hurt by it. No one has claimed that either of these is remotely true of Clinton’s use of emails.


To argue that the use of a personal server was in itself a threat to our national security, it would be necessary at least to demonstrate that, as opposed to the State Department’s server, Clinton’s was more accessible to hackers and therefore her use of it was more likely betray state secrets. But this has never seriously been claimed, and arguably the reverse is the case.


It is an unfortunate fact of early twenty-first century life that pretty much every email server is vulnerable to hackers, and indeed that the servers of a very great number of influential and important institutions are known to have been hacked in the last several years: universities, HMOs, major corporations, and, yes, government agencies have all had their emails compromised, often with devastating consequences. Arguably the more important the institution, the more likely it is that hackers will attempt to compromise its system. So if ISIS wanted to get useful information about State Department communications (and ISIS is known to be highly tech-savvy), its IT people would be much more likely to be spending their time trying to get into the State Department server (which they know exists) than into the Secretary of State’s private server (of the existence of which they are likely to be ignorant). So an accuser would need to demonstrate, before “rebuking” anyone, that her choice of personal server was more likely rather than less to have negative consequences for state security. This has not been plausibly done, so the accuser, rather than the accused, stands guilty of irresponsible communicative behavior.


Then too, it is unfair to accuse someone of criminal actions if there is no evidence that they understood that they were engaging in illegal activities – if indeed they even were. Clinton is an older person (like me). We older people are apt to be less technologically savvy than, for instance, our grandchildren. We manage to surf the Web and use email, but frankly, we don’t know too much about how a message gets from writer to reader. Truth be told, we don’t actually care that much: we have other things to do, and our time to do them is getting shorter. I imagine that this determination of relative importance is even more so in the case of a Secretary of State, who has a lot of more pressing things to learn about than how a server works. So what you want, if you are that SOS, is this: a means of communicating via email that enables you and your correspondents to get to each other with minimal interference and maximal simplicity. Period. And having only one email address is much simpler than having to remember more than one, and remembering the passwords for complicated security systems, and all that tech stuff. You are careful not to deal with classified information on that server – as far as you know, and apparently the State Department was not always punctilious in marking classified matter as such.


Claims by Comey, Trump, the Republicans, and the New York Times that “hostile foreign governments may [my italics] have gained access to her account” constitute irresponsible gossip. All kinds of things “may” have happened, and it is necessary to differentiate between those that in fact didn’t happen, and those that did.


The problem is that, in 2016, we do not – as a society and as a species – fully grasp the potential and the problems inherent in email, not even the tech-savviest of us. It takes humans a long time to achieve competence in the use of any new form of communication, even after we apparently learn how to use it. We think we are in control of the latest channel, but that may not be true.


From the time a human community first achieved general literacy, in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, to the present, we have not become fully comfortable with the production and interpretation of literate discourse. We use punctuation to clarify texts, to communicate to our imagined reader how we want our written statements to be read, but all too often these devices, while helpful, permit ambiguities the writer did not intend or foresee. Too, we are unsure of how to present ourselves in writing – how formally or colloquially, ironically or seriously, and misunderstandings of social intentions inevitably arise. And we have had 2500 years to figure it out.


It has taken us over 150 years to become effective users of the telephone. At first we didn’t even know what to say when it rang: we tried “ahoy,” before we got to “hello.” It took about a century to develop answering machines, and many years after that to figure out how to make them work politely. We still can’t control junk calls. Not to mention the difficulty many of us have simply ending a phone call, as opposed to face-to-face conversation.


Email is only about a quarter-century old for the great majority of its users. It would be amazing if we fully understood how to use it properly. I know how to write an email, attach stuff to it or paste stuff into it, make a link in an email to something else, send it, and read a reply. But I have no idea how these things are actually done by the gnomes inside my computer, or Google, or whoever.


Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know, and neither, I bet, does HRC, nor should she. So there is no reason to charge that HRC was delinquent in her lack of electronic sophistication, and no argument at all that by doing what she did she committed a crime.


Who has in fact committed demonstrable “crimes”? Why, the Donald – think “Trump University,” just for starters. (For one thing: as a faculty member of a recognized university, I wonder whether it constitutes an official “crime” to name an entity “Trump University” when its intentions and functions in no way resemble those of any genuine “university.”)


But this and other alleged and proven crimes of Donald Trump are not splayed across the first page of America’s major “news”paper, nor splashed across every TV and radio “news” program in lurid and salivating detail. Why the discrepancy? Why, on the other hand, are the commentariat so eager to “scold” and “rebuke” Clinton for her imagined trespasses? Nobody publicly “scolds” Trump (or “rebukes” Sanders, for that matter), no matter how dubious his behavior.


“Scolding” and its synonyms are interesting words, and their use encourages some inspection. Its valid use (both the verb itself, and the actions it represents) makes assumptions about the power, status, and position of the scolder and the recipient of the scolding, whom we might term the “scoldee.” In the context under inspection the use of words like “scold” or “rebuke” tells hearers and readers that Clinton doesn’t deserve, and as a woman should not seek, power, status, or position, and that if she does, she will be punished and deserves to be punished, and a “scolding” or “rebuke” is the least that she should expect. So what’s a “scolding,” and who can give – or get – one?


Scolding is a discursive activity that – unlike “talking” or “asking” – is not usable by just anyone under just any conditions. Under many circumstances its use is inappropriate or, as J. L. Austin would say, it would constitute an “infelicitous” speech act, one without any communicative function.


[An interesting fact about “scold” is that, unlike the majority of speech act words, it cannot be used as an explicit performative. Thus, we can say,


I order you to tell the truth.

I tell you that bats eat cats.


In each of these examples the performative speech act (order and tell) is explicit. But we cannot say (for instance):


*I threaten you that I will break your knees.

*I sneer that you are a Republican.

*I scold you that you are a bad girl.


There are theories around about why this group of speech act verbs cannot be used explicitly as performatives, at least in English, but none is fully satisfactory.]


I put those points in brackets because they are not strictly relevant to my argument, but as a recovering linguistic pragmaticist, I find them too interesting to omit.


One can scold felicitously only under specific social, political, and psychological conditions, most importantly that the scolder must outrank the scoldee. A parent or teacher can scold a child, but not vice versa; a boss can scold an employee; you can scold your dog, but not your cat (if you know what’s good for you), but the cat of course can and will scold you. Women can be publicly “scolded” where men cannot; the situations under which women can scold men are much fewer than those under which men can scold women. So when Comey is described as “scolding” or “rebuking” the first presumptive major party female candidate for the presidency, the description is meant to imply to readers or hearers that she is out of line – not just in how she handled her emails, but as a woman seeking presidential status.


The point of scolding women who are seen as out of line – looking for power, status, or position – is that scolding is not merely a corrective; it is used with the intention of creating embarrassment, humiliation, disqualification – and, ultimately, silence. Women are scolded to secure their silence, by demonstrating their irrelevance and insignificance. Women subject to scolding – and, all too often, now and in the past, much worse – are those who have attempted to cross or erase gender lines, who can be identified and reviled as neither male nor (properly) female. Thus Comey’s “rebuke” puts Clinton into the same category as other “improper” females throughout history:


  • witches, women who claimed or aspired to special and frightening forms of power, were subjected to imprisonment, interrogation, and too often torture and execution;
  • women who desired education or the chance to excel in sports had to be kept out of both, until well into the 20th century, “for their own good”: because participation in these activities would cause women’s minds and bodies to lose their “femininity.” See, for instance, the disturbing story in the July 3 issue of the New York Times Magazine of how high-performing female athletes are humiliated and driven out of competition by being subjected to physical examinations that prove they are “really male.” The effect is equivalent to Comey’s “rebuke,” but even more hurtful;
  • women who achieve economic power and/or control of major corporations, have to be deprived of their high status and humiliated. An excellent case is the prosecution and persecution of Martha Stewart in 2003, for “lying about committing insider trading.” (Jan Holmgren reminds me that it was James Comey who prosecuted the case.) Particularly outrageous in the Stewart case is that the Feds couldn’t find evidence that Stewart had actually committed the crime, but instead indicted her and found her guilty of lying by saying (under oath) that she hadn’t committed it. But if they couldn’t prove she had done so, how could they prove it was perjury when she said she didn’t? Well, she was an uppity woman, and that’s all you need to know;
  • and today Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most dangerous bitch of all – aspiring to the most symbolically powerful position in the world. Something must be done. I am afraid that something will be done.