the body politic

The Poison of Male Incivility

When a woman dares respond to it, she’s seen as “disruptive.”

Photo: Alba Vigaray/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Photo: Alba Vigaray/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Photo: Alba Vigaray/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Yesterday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood up and gave one of the finest speeches recently heard on the House floor, calling out not just Florida representative Ted Yoho for having called her “disgusting,” “out of your freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch” on the steps of the Capitol in front of reporters on Tuesday, but also elucidating how that kind of language is normalized and deployed against all kinds of women, on all kinds of days.

It was a remarkable piece of oratory, clear and thoughtful about some of the knottiest dynamics of gendered power imbalance in political, public, and personal life.

After Yoho’s outburst was reported in the Hill, he had offered up a floor speech purported to be apology, though it was actually far closer to pallid self-justification. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” Yoho had said, in a speech in which he did not mention Ocasio-Cortez’s name, and in which he nonsensically refused to “apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family, and my country.”

It was this non-apology and not his original outburst, Ocasio-Cortez said on Thursday, that led her to make her own speech, in which she eviscerated Yoho’s use of familial pablum and domestic association with women as evidence of his respect for them. Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that she, too, was someone’s daughter, and that that did not in any way insulate her or other women, also daughters and wives, from the impact of degrading and sexist diminution.

“You can have daughters and accost women without remorse,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “You can … project an image to the world of being a family man and accost women without remorse and with a sense of impunity. It happens every day in this country.”

The electric speech gave ringing voice to the experiences, frustrations, and anger of millions of women and men who have had their days, lives, and realities shaped by often abusive, sometimes vulgar expressions of patriarchal power. Among Ocasio-Cortez’s talents as a politician is her ability to connect and communicate clearly, intellectually, and emotionally, with masses of people; the speech she gave on Thursday put those talents on full display, and she was widely praised for it. New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick wrote a column suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez possesses the “rhetorical dynamism” long absent from the House of Representatives and praised her defense of decency, “principle and countless women,” while former DNC head Howard Dean tweeted, “I am now convinced that AOC has what it takes to run for president and to be President.”

But some of the coverage of the impact and resonance of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech perpetuated exactly the gendered power imbalances the speech was meant to challenge. The conflict started by Yoho, to which Ocasio-Cortez was responding, got retold, in the New York Times, as an instance of her aggressive political ambition, rather than as a response to the very forces that have long made political power elusive for women like Ocasio-Cortez, and an assumed norm for men like Ted Yoho.

The Times’ story on the speech bore the headline “A.O.C. Unleashes a Viral Condemnation of Sexism in Congress” and kicked off by noting that Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in Congress, who arrived there in 2019, “has upended traditions.” It called her speech on Thursday “norm-shattering” and described supporting speeches made by her colleagues — including one in which Pramila Jayapal recalled being referred to as a “young lady” who did not “know a damn thing” by Alaska representative Don Young — as a moment of “cultural upheaval.”

All these words somehow cast Ocasio-Cortez and her female colleagues as the disruptive and chaotic forces unleashed in this scenario, suggesting that they shattered norms in a way that Representative Yoho’s original, profane outburst apparently did not. (Perhaps Yoho’s words weren’t understood as eruptive and norm-shattering because calling women nasty names, in your head or with your friends or on the steps of your workplace, is much more of a norm than most want to acknowledge).

As Mark Harris pointed out on Twitter, the Times only printed the full epithet in a piece about Ocasio-Cortez reading it into the House record, after declining to print the words in an earlier story, when they would have been attributed to Yoho. This offered the faint impression that the only person who actually said the actual words “fucking bitch” was AOC herself, and not the man who aimed them at her. What’s more, the paper described her as “punching each syllable in the vulgarity,” reinforcing a view of Ocasio-Cortez’s utterances as pugilistic, without acknowledgment that while she enunciated clearly, she delivered her speech in the calmest and most genial tones imaginable. (An earlier Times story on Yoho’s non-apology and Ocasio-Cortez’s initial response to it described her as having “upbraided” him, and opened with a description of how she “forcefully rejected” his apology.)

Times reporters wrote that Ocasio-Cortez “excels at using her detractors to amplify her own political brand” (Ocasio-Cortez’s “brand” is the subject of frequent coverage; it’s rare that powerful white men are understood as having built brands; they just have careers). The Times described how, in the wake of Yoho’s words, “the media-savvy Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had sprung into action to create disruptive and viral events.” It may seem innocuous to call her “media-savvy” but that too turns a strength — media fluency and, with it, communicative acuity — into a diminishment and obscures the fact that Ocasio-Cortez had not created the disruption in the first place.

In describing her team’s decisions about how to respond, the Times put scare quotes around their plans “to discuss how she ‘was accosted and publicly ridiculed,’” rather than simply reporting that she had been … accosted and publicly ridiculed. The whole thing suggests that she had somehow connived to set this all in motion; that her actions were the active and self-serving ones, while Yoho was a passive actor, his only contribution to the situation providing the platform from which she might spring. As the Times put it: “Republicans have long labored to cast Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as an avatar of the evils of the Democratic Party, a move that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has used to bolster her own cheeky, suffer-no-fools reputation.”

There is no acknowledgement here that Ted Yoho, not lacking political and professional ambition himself, was also building his brand by deciding to accost Ocasio-Cortez in front of reporters. Nor is there acknowledgment that it worked for him. The percentage of Americans who had ever heard of “Ted Yoho” has risen exponentially in the past 48 hours, and his name will now resonate heroically for a broad swath of AOC/woman-hating Americans.

What is also true and unsaid here is the way in which degradation and dismissal of women — as disgusting, as crazy, but also as Jayapal’s examples remind us, as infantile, incompetent, irrational, and stupid — has been key to the building and maintenance of disproportionately male power in American political, economic, social, and sexual life. And that’s before we get to the ways in which the ubiquity of dehumanizing and aggressive language toward women can have very real violent implications, as the recent murder of Judge Esther Salas’s son by anti-feminist Roy Den Hollander, and so much contemporary mass violence, shows all too often.

How else to clear the field except to render your peers incapable, unlikable, unprofessional? Whether or not men are saying it out loud, via street catcalls or in front of political reporters, the reduction of their would-be female peers — their ideological and electoral adversaries and competitors for power — has helped clear away potential impediment to their own professional trajectories. But white male opportunism, whether in the form of aggressive insult displayed by Yoho this week, or merely accepting the advantages that broad systemic disrespect of others affords them, is rarely examined as the kind of active force that it has always been.

Instead we are trained to recognize the reactions of those who are not white men to white men as some sort of useful path to power. We are told, in lots of ways, that people who are not white men get to play certain kinds of cards — race and gender cards — to get ahead, whereas white men just … get ahead. White male power is so assumed as to be wholly indistinguishable from what we simply recognize as “power,” and with it, the whispered implication that those with authority have somehow earned that authority fairly and squarely, while those who challenge authority and its abuses are wily manipulators. This rankles particularly here, since what Ocasio-Cortez did so well this week was part of her job, the part that is about representing people and their experiences, and communicating effectively on behalf of those who’ve experienced disadvantage. In other words, she actually did earn whatever gains she made this week.

Meanwhile patriarchal power abuse remains so expected as to not be notable as a violation of norms or civility, as disruptive or chaotic. Instead, it simply coexists with the authority, the command, the humanity of white men — it’s just part of what their power looks like.

Consider how Yoho himself explained his derision of Ocasio-Cortez in his House floor speech as an expression of his “passion,” as somehow synonymous with his faith in God and his love for his family. And that Ocasio-Cortez’s senior colleague in her party, Representative Steny Hoyer, immediately responded to Yoho’s speech by calling his words “appropriate,” because “the language we use matters.”

It does matter. The language used about Ocasio-Cortez matters a lot, and will continue to matter as she rises through American politics.

As we read commentators tell the story of women’s ambition and savvy and drive, all of which are surely politically animating forces — as they have been for all the many men who have preceded them in American politics — I hope people can remember that the analysis is not wrong, exactly, but that it is woefully incomplete. Because until we can see how white men have taken advantage of sexism and racism for their own gain — how they’ve built their own “brand,” the American brand — on the backs of the fucking bitches forever, we’re not really reading a full story.

The Poison of Male Incivility