Friday, June 16, 2017

When Women Speak. The Examples of Kamala Harris and Veronika Hubeny.

Did you know that Kamala Harris's rapid-fire prosecutor-like questioning of Jeff Sessions was evidence of hysteria?  Jason Miller thinks so, in any case, though of course he used to be one of Trump's henchmen, so references to women and their wandering wombs might play well to Trump's new base, the "Alt Right":

KIRSTEN POWERS: Can I just go back to something that Jason [Miller] said? How was Sen. [Kamala] Harris (D-CA) "hysterical?" I don't really understand that. I mean, she was asking some tough questions -- 
JASON MILLER: I believe this is the second hearing in a row with completely partisan screed. 
POWERS: But, how is that hysterical? 
MILLER: It was. From my perspective, my, I would say objective, perspective, I mean it was -- it didn't seem like there was any effort to try to get to a real question or get to the bottom of it. She was purely out there to shout down --

Whatever one might call Harris's style of questioning, hysterical it was not.  But Miller called it hysterical, because Harris is a woman.  If that connection can be made to stick, we are at the beginning of Harris's long road to Hillarization.

Certain adjectives have gendered connotations:  Though men can be called hysterical, that label comes much more easily to our minds when we want to apply some derogatory label to women.  "Hysterical," after all, comes from the Greek hystera, for the womb, and hysteria was originally viewed as a medical condition of women, caused by something wrong with their wombs.

I have no way of knowing if Jason Miller carefully picked that adjective, for political purposes, or if it just smoothly flowed out of his maw.  But a slightly different recent event about how sex affects the way we treat people is probably evidence of not overt sexism but of obliviousness*:

While watching a panel titled “Pondering the Imponderable: The Biggest Questions of Cosmology,” Marilee Talkington noticed that the moderator wasn’t giving physicist Veronika Hubeny, a professor at UC Davis and the only female on the panel, her fair share of speaking time.
So when the moderator, New Yorker contributor Jim Holt, finally asked Hubeny a question about her research in string theory and quantum gravity, then immediately began speaking over her to explain it himself, Talkington was furious.
Fed up with the continuous mansplaining, Talkington interrupted Holt by yelling loudly, “Let her speak, please!” The crowd applauded the request.

The moderator apologized, and Hubeny herself minimized the meaning of the incident.  And that's fine.  But it's still worth pointing out that this is something that happens quite a bit, and the way to reduce it is consciousness-raising:

Think about the reasons why ignoring certain people has traditionally been almost cost-free, why ignoring other people has traditionally been very costly, indeed, and how we have all absorbed those rules (though differently, depending on our own status) without even realizing that we have absorbed them, as if by osmosis.

Explicit (rather than implicit) rules also help in reducing any unconscious bias we might have:  Make sure that everyone gets the same amount of time in a debate, for example.

The problem of invisibility or inaudibility** doesn't apply to only women.  It can apply to any group who has traditionally not been powerful in a society, but the most accentuated form of the problem does crop up with women, perhaps, because women have been easier to ignore without negative consequences, and because a modest and relatively silent*** role is still one which fits better with the normative expectations of how women should behave.


*  This footnote was added a day later, because I forgot the Uber case.  One board member, David Bonderman, cracked a silly joke about women talking too much at a meeting which was all about changing Uber's culture, including it's sexism. Bonderman has since resigned from the board.

It's that obliviousness, again.  I can't think of a perfect parable to explain how it strikes me, but it's as if a board member of a charity funding wheelchairs to elderly people made one of those "Help!  I've fallen and can't get up!" -jokes.

**  And neither does the earlier example about gender-specific adjectives.  There are race-specific slurs and adjectives with negative connotations about gays and Lesbians and so on.

It's not that those adjectives can't be used about other groups, but when they are applied to the "target" group (such as when "hysterical" is applied to a woman), the adjective bears a double-load:  It has its direct meaning and then it brings with it all the stereotypes about that particular group.

Come to think of it, they have that double-load, at least in the case of gendered adjectives, even when applied to some other group.  A man called "hysterical" is also implicitly called a sissy.

***  This article explains how that works in the criticisms of Hillary Clinton's post-election speeches.   Funnily enough, this later article suggests that she should go quietly away.  Into the night.