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Gender and linguistic micro-aggressions

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | May 25, 2011

Congressional hearings are not generally edge-of-your-seat television (the first part of Seth Meyers’ routine at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner hilariously reminds us of this), and usually not the stuff of headlines. Leave it to Rep. Patrick McHenry to change that.

As reported in several news outlets (e.g., see here and here), McHenry’s treatment towards Elizabeth Warren yesterday during her congressional testimony was out of line. The part that is grabbing headlines is McHenry’s direct accusations that Warren was lying, but what caught my eye was the line of questioning that led up to that moment — “an hour in which Ms. Warren repeatedly parried efforts by Mr. McHenry and other Republicans to pin her down with “yes or no” answers to questions about her March testimony,” as reported here by the New York Times.

The way in which the questioning of Warren unfolded reminded me of an in-depth analysis of the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings by Norma Mendoza-Denton, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Arizona. This analysis, titled “Pregnant Pauses: Silence and Authority in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings,” focused on the different ways in which Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas were cross-examined during those particular hearings. Clarence Thomas was up for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme court, and Anita Hill’s testimony included accusations of sexual harassment. As Mendoza-Denton notes, whereas Thomas’ lengthy testimony was often followed by long pauses that gave importance to his words and allowed his side of the story to “sink in,” testimony by Anita Hill was almost never followed by such pauses. Instead, Mendoza-Denton writes, the questioning of Anita Hill was characterized by rapid-fire, successive questions that accomplished three things. First, they gave Hill little time to think. Second, they gave Hill little control in framing her arguments. Third, they gave Hill little floor time to expand on her testimony.

Norma Mendoza-Denton’s analysis of the Hill/Thomas hearings is fascinating because it provides a window into the ways in which language can be used as a tool of aggression and even domination. In the case of both Elizabeth Warren and Anita Hill, the type of questioning employed is explicitly used to undermine the testimony of both women, and to control the flow of information.  And while this use of language is not news to legal scholars, it is worth considering the role that gender dynamics play in such micro-linguistic power plays.

Watching yesterday’s treatment of Warren, and the blatant accusations of lying, I was reminded of Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst at the 2009 State of the Union address. At that time, Maureen Dowd questioned whether Wilson’s outburst was facilitated by the fact that President Obama is African American. Yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Elizabeth Warren would have been treated similarly if she were not a woman — whether, when there is a break in decorum or social norms (as happened at yesterday’s hearings), an unconscious sense of entitlement allows people to feel like they can push or ignore social norms beyond boundaries that they would normally not feel comfortable testing.

See my colleague Derald Wing Sue’s blog on micro-aggressions for more discussion on this topic.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.