Thursday, March 2, 2017

Gabby Giffords, women speakers, & the courage to face public audiences

There are all sorts of reasons why women speakers need courage, and unlike most observers, I don't think the reason lies within them inherently. But I do know that society has been helping women internalize the idea that they shouldn't speak in public for centuries. It was first codified in the works of Cicero, who outlined what excellence looks like in public speaking, which he considered a solely male province, according to the custom of his time. Over the centuries, women have been punished for talking "too much," using public torture devices in medieval times or simply by keeping them off the conference agenda in today's world. They've been told they would not be able to bear children, be actual women, or be seen as anything other than a slut, all concepts that today are boiled down as "who does she think she is, up there?" And just last week in America, a famous football player told an elementary school classroom that girls should be "silent, polite, gentle," even as he urged the boys to speak up.

But the most extreme silencer is death, or an attempt at killing the woman speaker, something that both Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords have endured, and survived. Both were shot in the head, and both have had varied success in their subsequent speaking. But no one can doubt the courage they have shown--not just in withstanding the attacks, but in coming back to speak again.

That's why I had to smile last week when, in the wake of members of the U.S. Congress simply running away from scheduled town-hall meetings with angry constituents, our representatives were taken to task by none other than their former colleague, Giffords. One member of Congress suggested that the crowds might become violent, as part of his reasoning to stay away, citing the Giffords shooting as an example. But she was having none of that. In a statement, Giffords told fleeing members of Congress to "have some courage." Here's the statement:
Town halls and countless constituent meetings were a hallmark of my tenure in Congress. It’s how I was able to serve the people of southern Arizona. I believed that listening to my constituents was the most basic and core tenet of the job I was hired to do. 
I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public. Ron Barber – at my side that Saturday, who was shot multiple times, then elected to Congress in my stead – held town halls. It’s what the people deserve in a representative. 
In the past year, campaigning for gun safety, I have held over 50 public events. 
Many of the members of Congress who are refusing to hold town halls and listen to their constituents concerns are the very same politicians that have opposed commonsense gun violence prevention policies and have allowed the Washington gun lobby to threaten the safety of law enforcement and everyday citizens in our schools, businesses, places of worship, airports, and movie theaters. 
To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls.
This isn't just political for Giffords. Courage has been a theme of her speaking since the shooting, and you can see it in her TEDWomen talk from 2014. Most of her appearance was a seated interview with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell. Mitchell asked what her biggest challenge has been since the shooting. Giffords and then Kelly answered:
GG: Talking. Really hard. Really. 
MK: Yeah, with aphasia, Gabby knows what she wants to say, she just can't get it out. She understands everything, but the communication is just very difficult because when you look at the picture, the part of your brain where those communication centers are are on the left side of your head, which is where the bullet passed through.
That takes courage, just to persist in speaking. At the end of the interview, Giffords gave what may be the shortest talk ever at TED, proscribed by her aphasia. Here's what she said:
Thank you. Hello, everyone. Thank you for inviting us here today. It's been a long, hard haul, but I'm getting better. I'm working hard, lots of therapy — speech therapy, physical therapy, and yoga too. But my spirit is strong as ever. I'm still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can too. Get involved with your community. Be a leader. Set an example. Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best. Thank you very much.
They are words from which any eloquent woman--and perhaps more public officials--can take inspiration. Watch the talk here or below. And if you need tips on facing an angry crowd, from congressional town halls to your next talk, you'll find them on my other blog, don't get caught.

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly: Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by TED Conference)

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