Friday, February 10, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Elizabeth Warren's silencing in the U.S. Senate

Reading a letter from someone else is a common tactic in public speaking. Often, it's a powerful tool for the public speaker, offering a compact endorsement of the points you wish to make. And that was, no doubt, among the motivations for Senator Elizabeth Warren, who sought to read a now-famous letter from Coretta Scott King during the Senate debate about the nominee for Attorney General of the United States, Warren's fellow Senator Jeff Sessions.

King, the widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., was a powerful witness to injustice; you can find her speech on the 10 Commandments of Vietnam in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women, as just one example. The letter in question this week was sent in 1986 to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which was then considering whether to appoint Sessions to a federal judgeship. King, who could not appear live to testify, asked that her letter be entered into the Congressional Record, the official archive of what is discussed in Congress, and that was done.

So Warren this week was choosing to read a well-known letter about the nominee that was already an official document of the Congress to her colleagues in the Senate, during a debate on Sessions's pending appointment. Sounds appropriate on all counts, and perhaps even slightly less risky to use the words of a famous civil rights leader as the bulk of your remarks, right?

Not even. Here's how the New York Times described the scene after Warren began reading the letter in the Senate chamber:
Sensing a stirring beside her a short while later, Ms. Warren stopped herself and scanned the chamber. 
Across the room, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, had stepped forward with an objection, setting off an extraordinary confrontation in the Capitol and silencing a colleague, procedurally, in the throes of a contentious debate over President Trump’s cabinet nominee. 
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” Mr. McConnell began, alluding to Mrs. King’s letter, which accused Mr. Sessions of using “the awesome power of his office to chill the pre-exercise of the vote by black citizens."
You can see video of the interruption here.

Sen. McConnell used Rule XIX of the Senate to make the procedural move. When Warren asked to continue her remarks, McConnell objected again and the senator chairing the session ordered her to take her seat. Following a debate on the silencing, Warren was formally silenced until the debate on the nominee ended mid-week.

“Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” McConnell explained. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards later called that statement, "The history of progress for women, summed up in 11 words."

This did not, however, end the letter-reading by Warren. Democrats in the Senate began posting on Twitter with the #LetLizSpeak hashtag, sharing the letter and indicating support. News media covered the silencing and shared the letter. And Warren, not to be undone, stood outside the Senate chamber hours later and delivered remarks and the letter on Facebook Live. McConnell's three words--"Nevertheless, she persisted"--quickly became a feminist rallying cry, and #ShePersisted a new hashtag.

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday and the furor over her silencing became clear, some male Democratic senators rose to read the very same letter, in whole or in part--and were not interrupted or chastised for doing so. As the male Democratic senators and Warren are in the same party, the exception can't have been purely political. So why was the woman silenced, and not the men? Same content, different gender, different standard?
You can see that Warren scared the male Republicans in the way several of them doubled down on criticizing her, even after it was clear public opinion was with her. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, spoke at length on the Senate floor to defend the silencing (note that Fox News calls Warren "Chief Running Mouth," another attempt at silencing her). Sen. Lindsay Graham said the silencing was "long overdue," because "she is clearly running for the nomination in 2020."

The reality is that Warren commands a larger audience nationwide, compared to many senators, and is known as an effective and persistent critic who gets a lot of media attention. She might, as many other male senators have done, be contemplating a run for president. In other words, she was silenced for being effective in her work as a senator. “They were waiting to Rule 19 someone and they specifically targeted Elizabeth,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “I think because she’s effective.” So when you are silenced in your work, remember that it happens at much higher pay grades, too. If it happens to her, it can happen to you.

Warren's silencing gave her the last laugh: At this writing, Warren's livestream statement has been seen 11 million times on Facebook, with hundreds of thousands of reactions and shares. The views have been doubling each day this week. The full 10-page letter from King runs to 10 pages, and you can read it here. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Stay calm if you are interrupted with a surprise: This is one of the toughest tasks for a speaker, but it's worth pausing, taking a breath, and remaining calm as Warren did. Wait to see what the interruption is before you respond, and work on responding, not reacting. 
  • If you are silenced, say so: “Tonight I wanted to read that letter, and Sen. Mitch McConnell and Republicans came to the floor to shut me down for reading that letter,” Warren said in her livestream. Name the people or organizations that silence you--it's the best way to take back your voice and your control.
  • Use your other microphones: As Warren demonstrates, you're not limited to the venues that ban your speaking, especially not with social media tools at your disposal. The Senate floor is a powerful venue open only to 100 people, but a senator can reach many more people on Facebook Live than she can in a televised debate. And the controversy over silencing Warren meant that her remarks received most of the debate's coverage in the media, so the strategy to silence her backfired.
  • Don't let them shame you for being "outspoken:" Warren is often described as "vocal" and "outspoken," and not in a nice way, even though most of what senators do is public speaking. These words are silencing tactics, used most often on women. In this debate, she was warned by the chair not to read this letter, but did so, anyway. Warren, whose first appearance on The Daily Show found her vomiting backstage due to nervousness, is now a practiced and fearless speaker who simply persisted. Ignoring the shamers is the best revenge for an eloquent woman. Let them say, "Nevertheless, she persisted" about you.
Speaking the next day to civil rights leaders, Warren said, "What hit me the hardest was, it is about silence. It’s about trying to shut people up. It’s about saying, ‘No, no, no, just go ahead and vote.’ This is going to be hard. We don’t have the tools. There’s going to be a lot that we will lose. But I guarantee, the one thing we will not lose, we will not lose our voices.”

Here's the video of her reading of the letter on Facebook Live:

During the debate on whether to make... - U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren | Facebook

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