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Listening to her: Hillary’s dilemma

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | October 13, 2015

As the 2016 presidential campaign season begins in earnest, voters can confidently expect increasing amounts of attention from the pundits and other media inhabitants to candidates’ messages: how they introduce themselves personally to potential voters, and why they believe they should be victorious. This is just as it ought to be.

But there is one glaring exception to how it ought to be, a candidate who is listened to and understood not by what she is telling us – her positions and promises – but to how she is saying it.

Even before we have properly unpacked our campaign listening ears, the interpreters and sages are weighing in on Hillary Clinton’s talk, and very little of their assessment concerns what she is saying, and even less is in any way positive. Instead, an unhealthy amount of attention has been fixated on:

  • how Clinton talks;
  • how she should be talking but isn’t;
  • how she shouldn’t be talking but is; and
  • what it means that she is talking that way.

In other words, she is being hyperinterpreted.

I have written before about our unavoidable human tendency to listen to the way women talk, and attribute (usually negative) meanings to our interpretations, as seldom happens to men, and still more seldom to white, middle class, straight, and otherwise privileged males. Men are listened to and judged on the content of their utterances; women are listened at, that is, judged by the superficial form of their utterances.

What to listen for

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (Marc Nozell via Wikimedia Commons)

Never is this more likely to be true than when a woman becomes unwomanly, playing a role that women are not supposed to play. Then she becomes a threat and whatever weapons those profiting from the status quo have at hand will be used to bring her down. And listening to form, rather than content, is a lethally effective way to diminish the respect a speaker requires and makes her, in a disturbing way, less than fully human (and of course not presidential).

In previous snorts I mentioned this peculiar way that authoritative people are coaching us to listen to Clinton; a recent article in Newsweek provides a great deal of explicit evidence for what I referred to briefly. The examples are so many and so striking that it is impossible to imagine that our media darlings are behaving this way merely by chance or through force of habit: there is something serious going on. If it doesn’t stop, it is very apt to impair Clinton’s chance to achieve the presidency. Language is not just words.

As Nina Burleigh, the author of the article, points out, we don’t see any male candidate’s utterances being subjected to micro-interpretation as Clinton’s are: what she does with her eyes, her lips; whether and how she smiles; whether she sighs; if she stumbles over a word; and much more. Even Donald Trump, whose extra- and paralinguistic behavior is fascinatingly aberrant and worthy of examination, does not receive this kind of close-up and personal analysis.

In the last couple of weeks, an extraordinary amount of attention in many media outlets has been devoted to Clinton’s communicative problems, and the attention itself creates the majority of the problems. In other words, Clinton’s communication troubles exist on two levels: what she herself (and her staff) may be doing that is less than ideal; and at the meta-level, how commentators are relentlessly and uniquely picking up on whatever she may be doing in order to make her look not only like a schemer, but an incompetent schemer.

Focusing on the form, rather than the content of speech, suggests that there is something going on, something wrong with the way the speaker is speaking (or there would be no reason to focus on form); we have a deep innate belief that when someone is being deceptive, that will manifest itself in the extra- and para-, even if the linguistics itself gives nothing away.

Presuming deception

To resort to hyperinterpretation is to presume that there is something to find, something that is not right. So in a peculiar and disturbing way, the commentators’ habits feed on themselves; they themselves create the appearance of “deception” and “lying” that they keep finding people feel about HRC, and then they use what they learn from these polls to justify their arguments that there’s something wrong with Clinton that oozes out in the way she speaks, so they have an obligation to bore into that.

Well, sure: there is something wrong with Clinton: she’s not playing by girls’ rules, and she has to be punished for that. But nobody is saying that. The commentariat doesn’t – for good reason – see Clinton’s verbal difficulties as having to do directly with her gender and the roles permissible to members of that gender, but rather blames her as an individual.

Another problem with the pundits’ obsession with HRC’s form over content is that looking too closely at how a speaker constructs her sentences makes her seem scripted and inauthentic, as if she were obsessing over every mannerism on purpose. So the “inauthenticity” that commentators love to attribute to Clinton is, again, an artifact of their own tendency to hyperinterpret her, rather than anything she herself is doing or could change.

Making things worse

But Clinton herself and her team, as well as the Democratic Party, are not without fault in this business. Over the last several days, stories have surfaced in the New York Times about what her staff believes she is doing wrong and how she needs to change it and what she will do to change it, as well as about how prominent Democrats who in the past have been her supporters have come forward to criticize her responses to the email “scandal” as “falling short.”

This is disturbing and unfortunate, for Clinton, the Democrats, and – if their unending grumbling reaches its mark – on the nation. (President Trump? President Carson? President Jeb Bush? Oh come on!)

A competent major party in a presidential election year refrains from criticism of their strongest candidate. When its candidate is attacked, its response has to be predictable, swift and sure: they do not permit the sun to set on a negative assessment. They know that words have wings, and if they let criticisms go unchallenged, they will quickly become God’s truth, impossible to dispel. The Democrats should have learned this lesson in 2004 from the “Swiftboat” libel, but apparently not. Incredibly, this time they are gleefully contributing to the attack themselves.

Clinton’s staff and Clinton herself are making things worse than they need to be. In the last several days, according to a report in the Times, Clinton has repeatedly “apologized” for her purported email errors. The hope apparently is that, if she womans up (or down) and keeps apologizing, everyone will forgive her and see her for the nice harmless lady she really is.

No, no, a thousand times no! That isn’t how it works in the real world. When you apologize, you are admitting that you have done something wrong. The misbehavior ceases to be mere gossip, and turns into granitic fact. Once you apologize for something, the charge sticks to you forever. So apologizing is not just a sign of weakness but also a way to become still weaker. “Never apologize, never explain” has a lot going for it, especially if you haven’t done anything wrong in the first place.

Next, and maybe even more regrettable: on the front page of the Times on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Clinton’s aides engaged in “extensive interviews” explaining how the candidate was going to change her way of talking: she would henceforth “show her humor,” “show her heart,” and “contrast herself with Republicans.”

There’s nothing wrong with doing these things. But such choices need to seem – whether or not they are in fact – spontaneous and unscripted. Particularly if a candidate already has problems with “inauthenticity” and “unspontaneity,” extended interviews explaining how she is on message to demonstrate “heart” and “humor” is precisely how not to dispel those perceptions.

So at every point, from the media to the Party to Clinton’s aides to her own choices, Clinton is being sabotaged and sabotaging herself. This is very bad news. What is to be done?

Rewriting the rules

The real problem is that nobody knows how an anomaly like Hillary Rodham Clinton should do what American politicians have been doing for a couple of centuries – run for president. Behavior that has been familiar is suddenly strange and unpredictable: how does a woman do what only men used to get to do? Do her choices mean the same as theirs

We know what a normal candidate does, and how those normal choices make voters feel and eventually vote. But the meanings we naturally and unthinkingly attribute to a man’s behavior as a candidate for president do not automatically carry over to a woman in that position. Context changes meaning, and gender is context. If Clinton is to run a triumphant campaign – and I fervently hope she can – she and her people have to change how they act and think and speak from this moment forth.

We know what they should change from: everything I have mentioned above. No apologies, no deep self-revelations, no girly stuff.

But what should they, and she, change to? That is a much harder question, not least because there exist no role models (which men have in abundance) for a woman running for the most powerful and most symbolic position in the world. New understandings of what such a person must do, and how she can best do it, must be forged.

People in the Clinton campaign have to discard everything they think they know about how presidential candidates should present themselves to the public and to the media. At the same time, they must become wary of falling into feminine stereotypes, which might convey to voters the “abnormality” of their candidate. While normally, having participated in previous successful campaigns makes a staff member more valuable, in this case it is apt to work negatively: what succeeded for a male candidate is very likely to work against a woman.

Here as elsewhere, the first woman to do something important and public has to chart her own course, make up her own rules. And not as she goes along, but from the get-go, which is now. Six months ago would have been better still.

First of all, Clinton needs to appoint a team of surrogates, ready at a moment’s notice to jump in and defend her against “friend” and foe alike. (In Clinton’s case, sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.) No sneer, no underhanded comment should go unchallenged.

Next — very soon indeed — Clinton should convene a group of advisers, distinct from her current staff. There should be men and women, but mostly women. Very few should have any background in political campaigns, especially presidential runs. They should be knowledgeable in language and gender connections. (No, I don’t mean me.) They should be able to explain to the pols why the rules have to change and how those changes must be implemented. They should be sworn to secrecy for the next eight years, with horrible penalties for yapping to the media.

These things need to be done. Let us hope that they will be done, and soon.

Cross-posted from Robin Lakoff’s blog

Comments to “Listening to her: Hillary’s dilemma

  1. An article, Wilson, which you obviously did not read…. or understand….. and is in no way related. So, there’s that.

  2. In an environment where men supposedly rules, women need to make doubly effort to prove their worth. You may be similarly qualified than your men rival but you will be criticized and doubted more because you are of the opposite sex. I just hope in time, people will not be quick to discriminate and treat men and women fairly.

  3. This is from the same person that wrote “The Republican Ignorance Agenda.” Just another piece of close minded partisanship.

  4. Thank you for your blog. It is very well written and pleasant to read. Please do not judge HRC and present a verdict when without all the facts and findings are not completed. Unless you have knowledge that is not known to the rest of us. Thank you.

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