“In the future, there will be no female leaders.
There will just be leaders.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
The Psychology… not the Politics
Fair warning: This blog is about the other week’s Vice-Presidential debate, but it’s not about election politics. I thought you should know that up front. Your politics are yours and this is not a space for that.
This is, however, a space where I have often discussed healthy self-assertion, owning our boundaries and speaking our truth with confidence, with grace and without apology. It seemed ludicrous of me not to observe those dynamics played out so poignantly in the debate the other night.
(A full transcript of the debate can be found here, for reference.)
“I am speaking”
Social power dynamics and expectations were on full display during this debate. The candidates both agreed to debate rules including time parameters and protocols. On the heels of a Presidential debate that frequently devolved into a three-way scream-fest, turn taking and honoring moderator Susan Page’s direction that each candidate would have (X) minutes, uninterrupted felt particularly important.
In spite of those agreements, Vice President Pence routinely went well over his time and then interjected while Senator Harris was speaking. Ms. Page attempted to assert the boundary multiple times by interjecting, “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” on repeat while he completely ignored her, frequently three and four times to end a single exchange.
In one such exchange, the Vice President ignored the moderator’s direction to stop, (“Thank you Mr. Vice President,”) three times and then went on to interrupt Sen. Harris seven times. Part way through his interruptions, Sen. Harris stated, in full “Mamala” fashion, “I’m speaking.” It did not stop him from interrupting four more times, but it became clear at that the VP was using the interruptions to assert power.
Listen to what they do, not what they say
Of the four remaining interruptions in that one exchange, Pence twice interjected the word “please” in response to Sen. Harris’ calls to return to protocol. Doesn’t that sound so polite and conciliatory? “Please, let’s return to our agreed rules.” While his words seemed cordial, the interruptions themselves were a way of demanding:
1. To continue to interrupt,
2. to offer one display (of oh so many that night.) of Pence’s apparently oblivious Privilege: That he gets to determine what is discussed and when, and
3. A little bit of gaslighting. He was not following the rules with his interruptions, while Sen. Harris, at that time, was. He attempted to make is seem as though the opposite was true.
His words were polite, but he was using them as domination weapons.
Mamala was not having it.
And there lies the gold.
As I have said so many times that you can probably guess what I am about to type… “When we don’t know who we are, we act like someone else.” Senator Kamala Harris knows who she is. She clearly has no reason to accept Vice President Pence’s distorted version of events, or even to prove that he is distorting. She knows what’s true and didn’t waste any time on any of it. She did what she came to do.
Mind your assumptions
I further respect Sen. Harris in that she brings her gifts, her way. I had a surreal experience the day after the debate while watching a young white female commentator on public television criticize Sen. Harris for wearing her reactions plainly on her face. The commentator said, “It’s like she didn’t know she was on a split screen.”
Oh friend… no. So much no. I’m going to guess that you are so steeped in that narrow band of culture that you don’t even see it: You are imposing the rules of the Patriarchy. Sen. Harris is not playing those rules. (I love her for that.)
Oh those pesky emotions…
The Patriarchy dictates that, in formal settings, Caucasian men are “allowed” to show anger and annoyance, but not much else. There are penalties for white men who cry, show appear tender or even concede or respectfully share control over a conversation. There are also steep penalties in that system when non-white men show anger or annoyance, likely because those displays are equated in that mindset, with strength. When non-white men, and especially Black/Indigenous Men of Color show anger, they are perceived as “threatening.” This is deemed unacceptable by those who assume that the table of power is theirs to own and manage.
In this system, women of any ethnicity receive backlash when we do anything but smile and be “pleasant,” even while we are sincerely fighting for our right to exist and have a voice in the conversation. (Remember the smack down Hillary received when she spoke loud enough to avoid being drowned out by Donald Trump? She was dismissed as “shrill.”) And God help Kamala Harris if she ever comes across as the proverbial “Angry Black Woman.”
Toxins kill everybody
The “rules” are fierce and rigid. They crush all of us, regardless of gender, power status, ethnicity or wealth. These rules disrespect the unique contributions that each and every one of us bring to the public table.
Different, not wrong
Kamala did what is normative in her culture and in her context: She had honest emotional reactions to comments that were false, inflammatory and at times, oddly asynchronous. She wore on her face what so many people were saying out loud to their television screens. She was authentic.
The Patriarchy does not value authenticity and it shames emotion. Many other cultures in the world, and certainly in the U.S., function differently. Many cultures value the whole body of logic, not just the linear stuff that comes from the neocortex. (For more information, click here.) Many cultures embrace the important contributions of emotional and experiential logic to decision-making.
Senator Harris “did it her way.” She brought herself, in full, to the exchange without any regard for patriarchal norms. Sen. Harris’ gifts are an important correction to the unhealthy “way we do what we do.”
Frank Sinatra as Prophet
Don’t miss this: One of the first dances now-President Trump and his wife danced to during one of the Inaugural Balls was Frank Sinatra’s version of the Paul Anka song My Way. (I still find it hilarious that whoever chose and approved that song to kick off the beginning of a presidency didn’t seem to have ever listened to the words in the verses. If you want a good laugh, you can read them here. I digress…) Many of Trump’s supporters applauded him for that attitude: He was going to do presidency his way. You go, man. You show ‘um!
And yet, when Kamala Harris shows up in the public sphere “her way,” she is roundly criticized. When she pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his attempts to obfuscate and avoid his ethical and legal responsibilities, (see it here,) the headlines read, “Kamala Harris goes on a rampage.” Sessions said that her questioning made him “nervous,” and essentially expected her to make him feel better. That wasn’t her job, (and he did prove to be lying.)
She did not kotow to the expected social norms where women, and especially Women of Color, cater to the comfort of men, and especially Caucasian men. She broke the rules. Many people, including Sessions, were flabbergasted. She was consequently demonized in the press.
When she was direct, clear and refused to allow Justice Brett Kavanaugh off the hook when asking about his handling of information concerning Robert Mueller, (see it here,) she was criticized for being “aggressive.” When men are “aggressive” we appoint them to high positions. When women are “aggressive” it’s a bad thing. When we do our jobs and don’t allow men to run over us in the process, we are penalized. We sometimes lose whatever power we had because we had the nerve to bring our gifts in a form that discomfited the comfortable.
It’s time to be healthy
There are many frightening and unsure things going on right now. As human beings, our natural tendency is to fall back to something more familiar, more seemingly secure when we feel threatened. I want to challenge you to something much, much finer.
We have many unhealthy norms in our nation in and in our world right now. The way we have done things in the past is no longer sustainable. Do not be afraid to question everything. Those things that are true and robust will stand up to scrutiny; Truth doesn’t need our help to be true.
When you always do what you’ve always done
As the saying goes, “When you always so what you’ve always done you will always get what you’ve always gotten.” What we’ve “gotten” at this juncture is a pandemic, police brutality, social injustice, climate change, lack of access to affordable and effective healthcare, systemic racism, dangerously depleted nutrition at its source and fracturingly polarized politics. We are unhealthy at every level from our cells to our planet. We are not the robust people we once were. We cannot keep doing what we’ve always done.
I’m crazy enough to believe that our beat solutions will come from listening to the voices that have previously been marginalized, in their own language, their way. Meaning, in order to be successful and heal from all of … this… we need to respect our own voices and to listen with equal respect to those who differ from us. It’s time to stop demanding that people fit themselves into a form and style that has soundly proven to be unsustainable.
The current pervasive norms of our country are based on my culture. According to my DNA analysis, I am a nearly-entirely Caucasian woman. Three branches of my family are fairly recent European/Scandinavian immigrants. One branch showed up in the 1600’s and then literally helped to found the United States of America. Believe me when I tell you, I very personally understand the social norms of what has been our dominant culture through most of our history as a country!
One of the high values for that culture is homogeneity: If it’s different, it’s wrong. This has set up a strange kind of power struggle. We have inherited a colonialist mindset that thinks in terms of either-or: Either I am powerful, or You are powerful. If those in power lose power, they fear that they will be harmed, exploited and marginalized the way they have harmed, exploited and marginalized others.
But here’s the crazy/sane thing: The majority of the cultures in the world are collaborative. The current push for inclusion and respect for all people is not about an either-or at all; It’s a both-and. When those with a collectivistic, both-and mindset come into places of power, we tend to lead in ways that honor the contributions of all, rather than the select few who compete in and attempt to sustain a viciously competitive hierarchy.
The table is round
The table of leadership, of community and change, is round. There is room for all who can respect that there is room for all.
Comfortable isn’t always healthy
When you hear yourself bristling because someone speaks and expresses in a way that isn’t comfortable to you, I encourage you to stretch, listen and consider the way you would want that person to stretch toward you, listen to you, and consider your perspective. Our diversity truly is our strength. When we listen respectfully, we grow, even when we still disagree.
The table is round. Bring what you bring. Respectfully and carefully consider what others bring. My relatives, steeped in their colonialist culture established our country as a something that was ostensibly for “we, the people.” However, they only understood land-owning, straight, European-descended men to be actual “people.” At the same time, they made room for our founding documents to grow into a greater understanding over time. They had been personally harmed by a static view of power, and they did not want that to be the norm for the United States.
Mamala-style makes room
Regardless of how you might feel or not feel about Senator Kamala Harris, I encourage you to embrace her example. Let’s show up in our own way, in our own language, with our own unique perspectives and cull the wisdom from all of those who do likewise. Let’s value and respect ourselves and others, and let’s see what better directions it can lead us in from the microcosm of our internal lives to the macrocosm of our place in the world.
The table is round.