Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Kamala Harris's silenced Senate questions

(Editor' s note: No, it's not Friday, but the hiatus did not let me publish this key speaking moment of 2017, so I'm using the last week of the year to catch up.)

When a few of her Republican colleagues attempted to silence U.S. Senator Kamala Harris for the second time in as many weeks during Senate intelligence committee hearings this June, the incidents could have been read simply as an attempt by Republicans to protect members of their own party. But the media and the public quickly noticed a key little detail: Senator Harris' male and white Democratic colleagues were allowed to carry out their questioning without being admonished.

Here are a few of the tweets that appeared during the hearings:
Republican Senators Richard Burr and John McCain, who interrupted Harris' questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may have wanted to shut down Harris to prevent damaging revelations about the U.S. presidency from coming to light. Because she was a woman, however, they reached for some time-worn tools to try to silence her. It's worth taking a closer look at these tools here, since they are used consistently against women speakers.
  • Women who speak up risk being called "rude." During Harris's questioning of Rosenstein, she was reprimanded by Senators McCain and Burr in a very specific way when she tried to get a "yes or no" answer out of the deputy attorney general. See if you can spot it in Burr's remarks, coming around the 2:06 mark of this video. Men often say they prefer direct speech to equivocation. But when a woman like Harris is direct, that quality can often be labeled as "rude" or "discourteous." It's worth noting that Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich were similarly direct in their hearing questions, but were not reprimanded for a perceived lack of courtesy. (Heinrich was interrupted once, by McCain.) It's also worth noting that during the Sessions hearing, the attorney general complained that Harris' questioning style was making him uncomfortable, which suggests that he felt she was violating some rule that required her--and no one else at the hearing--to be pleasant to him.
  • Women who speak up risk being called "hysterical." The qualities of being persistent and dogged in pursuit of answers underwent a suspicious transformation in the minds of some who watched Harris' questions. On CNN, former Donald Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said that Harris was "hysterical" and "shouting" during the hearings. You can watch the videos below to judge for yourself, or I'll save you the time: no shouting took place, by any of the participants. Attempts to silence or smear women speakers by calling them hysterical have a long history, but thankfully CNN analyst Kirsten Powers pointed out to Miller that it was, well, a little strange that he was singling out Harris for this label.
  • Women who speak up may be called "incompetent." Senators typically don't ask great questions at these hearings, preferring to give their own speeches in lieu of seeking answers. But as a former prosecutor, Harris is in fact very good at this type of questioning, which is necessary to establishing essential facts, timelines and documentation--just the kinds of things that you would think would be the aims of an investigatory hearing. Instead, Burr tried at the start of the Sessions hearing to get Harris to back down from this competent handling, by framing her style of inquiry as "taking political or partisan shots."
Harris went to straight to social media after the Sessions hearing, to request answers from the attorney general again, and to launch a new fundraising campaign for her fellow women legislators in response to her treatment.

The campaign's slogan? "The women of the United States Senate will not be silenced when seeking the truth."

Video of Harris at the two hearings is here:


(This Famous Speech Friday post was contributed by freelance writer Becky Ham)

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