Thursday, October 17, 2013

Women and Rhetoric in Politics: Are Ladies Really So Nice?

The Huffington Post has an article today with the attention-grabbing headline of "Men Got Us Into the Shutdown, Women Got Us Out."

While that title may have been chosen primarily for its ability to drive pageviews, there does seem to be some truth to it. The so-called "suicide caucus" responsible for the (now failed) demand to defund Obamacare that temporarily shut down the government is overwhelmingly male: 76 out of the 80 participants. It was also overwhelmingly white (79 out of 80).

Likewise, it seems that after negotiations in the House sputtered out for the final time, the leadership leading negotiation in the Senate was largely female. From the HuffPo post:
Out of the 14 senators on the bipartisan committee that laid the framework for the debt deal, six were women. Susan Collins (R-Maine) started the group, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) took part in negotiations.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Collins told The New York Times. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”
Senate = Good

As someone who cares about politics, rhetoric, and gendered norms, this topic is very interesting to me.

As I've written before, I am frustrated by the implication that women aren't (or shouldn't be) as aggressive as men when it comes to rhetorical argument. Still, the narrative persists (and is often backed up with data) that men and women communicate differently. This short piece from Discovery does a good job of going over the common tropes when it comes to this belief: women ask more questions, men don't like to apologize, women are less direct, men are more aggressive, women pick up subtle cues, men require straightforward responses. Here's a slightly more nuanced discussion from The Atlantic. Finally, here's a slightly more academic discussion from Towson University.

It makes sense that men and women would communicate differently because communication is a large part (in fact, since I believe that communication is tied up in every part of our construction of reality, I'd be willing to argue it's the only part) of our public performance. And our public performances are closely tied to our sense of identity: the identity we feel within and the identity we want to project outward as well as the identity that is read upon us by others regardless of how we view ourselves. Since the gender binary is deeply entrenched in our cultural norms, it's only logical that those expectations would show up in the way we talk. 

Still . . . 

I don't think we're looking at the full picture when we say that "women are better at negotiating than men." Sure. Women are often trained from childhood to be "nice" and "polite" while boys are encouraged to become "real men" through more aggressive and confrontational play. One only need to look at the gendering of children's television shows and toys to know that. 

But I think that there's another layer that we need to examine. It struck me particularly as I listened to Ted Cruz dismiss public polls suggesting that the American people disagreed with his position. I genuinely believe that Ted Cruz thinks that the polls are wrong, and I think it's because Ted Cruz does not understand what it is like to be in a minority position. 

Take a closer look at that "suicide caucus." This excellent New Yorker article explains that they represent constituents who are no longer in the majority in several different categories:

The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. . . .

The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.
As with Meadows, the other suicide-caucus members live in places where the national election results seem like an anomaly. Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. . . . 

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
 Not only are they out of touch with the national trends, but they are witnessing a shift in cultural power. It was not that long ago that a majority minority American population seemed out of the question; now it seems inevitable. People in rural Colorado want to secede from their state because they feel they don't get equal representation with urban districts; they seem to not understand that there are more people in urban districts.

It's easy to think that your views are representative of the whole if you live in such a way as to (intentionally or unintentionally) block out the views of most of the people around you. It's easy to, like Ted Cruz, think that the polls must just be wrong. You know what you've seen, and you extrapolate it to the entire country.

What does this have to do with gendered rhetoric?

There aren't that many women who haven't had the experience of being in the minority position. We live in a patriarchal society. Women's views are frequently ignored or downplayed for no reason other than our gender identities. We are catcalled to remind us that the spaces we inhabit are not really ours. We are harassed even in virtual spaces simply because we are women. We are underrepresented in media, national politics, and corporations.

We don't have the luxury of conveniently thinking the polls are wrong. We are used to having to struggle against a more powerful majority to have our voices heard.

I suspect this is why there weren't many people of color, openly gay representatives, or people with disabilities in that so-called "suicide caucus," either. (Though we also need to talk about the fact that all of these groups and others who face systematic oppression didn't have the opportunity to join any caucus at all because of the under-representation they face in our political system.)

People who are used to raising their voices in the face of oppression learn to communicate differently than people who are always joining a chorus. Ted Cruz expected this move to work because he can't imagine a world in which the people around him don't overwhelmingly support him. He is used to being the majority, and he doesn't know how to act when he's not.

If women negotiate better than men, I don't think it's because we've been divinely gifted with some innate power of politeness; it's because we've had to negotiate in everything we've ever done.

We have more practice.

Photo: chriswatkins

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