Tag Archives: barack obama

Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.

Logical Fallacy Friday: The Straw Man

Actually a wickerman.

Welcome to the inaugural Shitty First Drafts Regular Feature!  Logical Fallacies week was always my favorite part of teaching rhetoric.  I got to show funny videos, mock public figures, and make a game out of students matching the quote to the appropriate fallacy.  Occasionally, this would backfire a little bit, as a few intelligent students would learn that you can pretty quickly throw a fallacy label on any argument you don’t particularly like.  Labeling arguments as straw men, ad hominem attacks, or red herrings is a pretty effective derailing method.  So, as both a fun exercise and a public service, I thought I would devote each Friday to explaining one logical fallacy until I eventually run out.

So, the Straw Man!  Most people are familiar with this one, I think.  The straw man fallacy is where you present the weakest possible version of a position so that it’s easy to rebut.  The straw man is so flimsy that it cannot resist your attacks.  It just sits there mute and ridiculous-looking while you tell it how terrible it is and how everything it represents is evil.  Then you and your friends can set fire to it and do a heathenish dance of celebration as you watch the evil, evil straw man disintegrate in the flames. I’m fairly certain that O’Reilly and Olbermann have literally done this on television.  Ok, maybe not.  But a little effigy burning would probably be more interesting than the usual bloviating that happens on those shows.

This ruse is usually so effective that eventually, you forget that you created the straw man in the first place, that it was thrown together using the most oversimplified, misinterpreted version of the position you hate, that in your dissociative haze of rage and cognitive dissonance, you transformed a complex argument with many subtleties and nuances and exceptions and suspended judgments into a cartoon villain.  You forget how exactly you got from this:

A person with whom you may have a reasonable agreement.

To this:

A cartoon that does not exist in the real world.

The straw man is where fact meets fevered imagination.  It is a diversionary tactic that absolves you from having to engage with actual ideas.  Do either of these statements sound familiar?

Conservatives want to roll back Civil Rights.

Liberals want to turn America into a Communist state.

The reason these straw men work is because they are relatively easy to turn into slogans:  “MY OPPONENT LIKES TO PUNCH PUPPIES AND THINKS WE SHOULD ALL PUNCH PUPPIES TOO.  IF YOU DON’T WISH TO SEE PUPPIES PUNCHED, VOTE FOR ME!”  Ok, it’s not exactly like that.  One of the reasons why these work is because they are familiar enough that they sound sort of like something a conservative or a liberal might think.  But no one on either side is actually arguing for either.  Many conservatives are critical of policies like affirmative action and resent the government trying to enforce equality (like in the military) before social attitudes are adjusted, but no mainstream conservative that I have ever heard has seriously argued that we should go back to separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow.  Similarly, many liberals are critical of capitalism and the socio-economic inequalities it produces and want to see the government directly involved in reducing those inequalities through welfare, universal healthcare, etc., but there are no mainstream liberals that I am aware of that have Stalin posters on their walls and want the government to completely take over the means of production.

Ok, it’s time for a West Wing digression.  There was this episode once where Toby, a White House staffer thought he had found a way to fix Social Security and was reaching out to members of Congress he thought might be willing to help work out a compromise.  There was a heavy-handed bit of irony in the second act, when the deal was falling apart, in which Toby tells his new assistant that there used to be this Republican in the House who could have probably solved the whole partisan clusterfrack.  This guy had wanted to work on Social Security in the past, but the moment that he went on the record as maybe, perhaps, one day considering possibly, under some certain circumstances raising the retirement age, Toby and another staffer had hit him with an attack ad showing 90 year-olds working in a factory.  So, the guy lost re-election to a Democrat who was too concerned about his own re-election to help out.  The most depressing part of that episode was when they intimated that the reason we haven’t fixed Social Security yet is because that would make it impossible for politicians to campaign on the promise of fixing Social Security.  Creating Straw Men is usually about winning the argument rather than solving the problem.

While it is important to recognize straw men for what they are and attempt to avoid them in our own speech and writing, the term “Straw Man” gets abused an awful lot.  Sometimes, when someone disagrees with you in a way you don’t like, it’s fairly easy to go OMG STRAW MAN! as a way of refusing to engage the critique.  Sometimes, claiming that you’ve been misrepresented is a way of avoiding the fact that someone just put a spotlight on your argument and a whole bunch of roaches crawled out.  So, I guess this is where straw men accusations can sort of also become straw men themselves.  I think this happens a lot when Person #1 in a debate indicates that what Person #2 just said is racially insensitive or offensive to women or disabled people, etc, citing Person #2’s words.  So, for example:

Person #2:  If she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt, she wouldn’t have been assaulted.  Women need to take responsibility for their own safety.

Person #1:  The suggestion that female victims are somehow responsible for their own assault is victim-blaming and misogynist.

Person #2:  I’m not a misogynist!  She just called me a misogynist!  I can’t possibly be expected to reason with this crazy person!

This sort of derail works because we know that Racist, Sexist, and Homophobe all fall into the category of Really Bad Things to Be Called.  So now everyone is concentrating on that mean, mean name Person #1 called Person #2 instead of addressing the critique, which is that victim-blaming arguments help perpetuate a culture of misogyny that lets perpetrators off the hook because “she was asking for it.”

I wish I could prescribe an easy way out of this trap.  I tell my students that in order to avoid a Straw Man Fallacy, the best thing to do is make sure you are really paying attention to other people’s arguments and to cite specific examples and exact language whenever possible.    The thing is that at some point we all use logical fallacies.  They are easy to use and often effective, and no one is immune to resorting to them.  Awareness of what they look like and why they are problematic and how you may be prone to them helps, though.  The more you know and all that.