July 29, 2016

Sexism: Clinton's Sometimes Shrill Tone is a Liability

Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore 2
Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore
Among people who consider sexism to be one of the worst things of which one can be accused, accusations of sexism are a powerful way to shut down disagreement and silence one's opponents. It does not matter if the accusations of sexism are baseless; making them is usually sufficient to change the course of the conversation. "If you do not support Hillary Clinton for president, you are a sexist." The power of statements like this is that they allow the person making them to dismiss any criticism, no matter how valid, of one's preferred candidate. Once the critic has been deemed sexist, anything he or she says can be safely ignored. Picture the child covering his or her ears and making a loud sound to drown out whatever you are saying, and you get the idea.

Many Clinton supporters point to sexism whenever someone criticizes the manner in which she presents herself in large public settings (e.g., speeches, debates). The term critics like to use to describe Clinton's tone here is "shrill." It is not a constant problem for her by any means. She is capable of coming across extremely well during interviews and interactions with small groups. And even in debates and big speeches, she is not consistently shrill. But for some reason, she has a tendency to become shrill at times in front of larger crowds. And when this happens, she becomes hard to listen to. For those of you old enough to remember chalkboards, her shrill tone makes me think of dragging nails on a chalkboard. It can be nearly that aversive.

But characterizing Clinton as "shrill" and focusing on her tone in any way is sexist, right? Only if one is willing to ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders received as much if not more criticism for his tendency to yell his speeches while refusing to smile while addressing his crowds (not to mention is notoriously unkempt appearance). This criticism of Sanders was absolutely deserved. His constant yelling became tiring quickly and undercut his message. Had he been able to turn it off, I suspect he would have been a somewhat more effective speaker. Clinton's prognosis is better in that her issue is not constant. She is capable of presenting herself extremely well and often does so. If she could learn to limit the shrill tone, I have little doubt that she would be a more effective speaker.

Some of those who are determined that any characterization of Clinton as shrill must be sexist insist that it communicates "...that for on-air delivery to resonate as authoritative and credible it should come in a low tone. In other words, only a man's voice sounds like it tells important truths." This misses the point entirely. The shrill tone is not merely a matter of the relatively higher pitch of Clinton's voice. And once again, Sanders received ample criticism for his tone too. The shrill tone also has precious little to do with the perception that Clinton is angry or aggressive. Clinton has expressed anger very well without becoming shrill on a number of occasions, and the fact that she's widely regarded as "tough" has been more of an asset than a liability during this election season.

But surely talking about Clinton's tone rather than the content of her speech is sexist! I did not watch Clinton's speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention, so it would not make much sense for me to address its contents. I did not watch Sanders' DNC speech either. I watched many other speeches at the DNC, but neither of these held much interest for me. But if the tone undercuts the intended message, that seems relevant.

Since some Clinton supporters are so hung up on what they are determined to regard as sexism, I'll pose the following question: Is it sexist to want your candidate to be a better candidate just because she happens to be a woman? I genuinely believe that Clinton would be a more effective speaker and would be better able to connect with her audience if she can learn to overcome the shrill tone to which she periodically resorts during presentations in front of large audiences. Is this constructive criticism so sexist that it should be withheld to her detriment, or would it be even more sexist to withhold it merely because of her gender?

I have no question that women are capable of being sexist toward women, and so what I am about to say does not preclude the possibility that the women to whom I refer below are just being sexist. Still, I feel obliged to point out that much of the criticism I have encountered about Clinton's sometimes "shrill" tone has come from women. I know a few women who are long-time Clinton supporters, voted for her in 2008 and in the recent primary, are absolutely thrilled that she won the Democratic nomination, plan to actively campaign for her and who have expressed real concerns about her periodic shrillness. They describe this tone as off-putting and acknowledge that they find it very difficult to listen to Clinton when she's in this mode. They worry that this will cost her support if she cannot steer clear of it during the upcoming debates with Trump.

I have no doubt that some readers will dismiss them as sexist too. I am reluctant to do so, though. I recognize that they desperately want Clinton to crush Trump. They love Clinton, and what they most want is for her to be the most effective candidate she can possibly be. They are going to work to elect Clinton no matter what; however, they are concerned that Clinton's tendency to descend into shrillness can undercut her message and cost her votes. They hope she is able to overcome this problem and quickly.