The Vice Presidential Debate boiled down to yet another extraordinary woman being comprehensively patronised, lectured and interrupted by yet another deeply mediocre man.
Well, that’s one hour, 46 minutes and 8 seconds that I will never get back! Thanks to the Editor of The Big Smoke asking me to write about it, I found myself watching the US Vice Presidential Debate and, having ploughed through to the end, if you haven’t watched it, I recommend you don’t. Sure, it was much more civil than the Gunfight at the OK Corral between Trump and Biden, but it was also much more tedious.
Mind you, I could have dealt with the tedium. What made it close to unendurable was the sight of yet another extraordinary woman being comprehensively patronised, lectured and interrupted by yet another deeply mediocre man. And, what’s worse, having to remain polite about it.
If this debate proved anything at all, it proved that Kamala Harris is the real deal. She had all the facts at her fingertips and delivered them clearly and refreshingly. That’s the trouble with facts, and why – in this short-attention-span world – they have become so unpopular. They are often nuanced and complex and hard to deliver in an entertaining (or at least not so dull your audience fantasise about poking their eyes out with a fork) manner. Harris can do it, probably because of her court experience, where no doubt her skill did her client’s proud. She can also do it, however, because she has that indefinable gift we call charisma.
Harris is an attractive person without being flashy and she has a stunning smile that she uses to great effect. But, and this is an important but, she does not use it to ingratiate. In fact, she does the opposite. She uses her smile wryly and in collusion with the viewer – particularly when her opponent says something that she identifies as spin or worse. Instead of a raised eyebrow, often seen as aggressive, Harris flashes us a knowing grin. And we grin back, even if we don’t want to. It’s brilliant.
I suspect Harris, like so many women of her age and achievement, has had to spend a lot of time smiling politely at pompous and idiotic men, learning how to be patient and kind while remaining true to herself and her ideas. Women, no matter how bright they are, are never allowed to be the smartest person in the room. Black women, no doubt, are not even allowed to be the smartest person in an all-female room. Harris has mastered the art of knowing she is probably almost always that person and letting us know that she knows she is, without being angry, resentful or aggressive. She even manages to communicate that she is fine if the guy droning on at the next desk seemingly unendingly (he interrupted her 16 times to her 9) doesn’t realise it either. After all, his lack of self-knowledge and awareness just helps prove her point – Your Honour.
Despite her patience, kindness and innate courtesy, Harris is no push-over. She stood her ground a number of times, including borrowing a line from Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech which she used to great effect. ‘I will not be lectured by the Vice President..’ she said when Pence attempted to mansplain law enforcement to her. Boom! She was a Prosecutor and California’s Attorney General whereas Mike Pence’s previous career was as a Christian radio host.
I am sick and tired of watching women who have honed their diplomatic and communication skills to perfect pitch from necessity, and who know how vital it is they never lose their temper, raise their voice or drop their charm, no matter what the provocation, being held to a higher standard.
When Pence spoke over her (as he also did over the female debate moderator in time-honoured white male fashion), Harris did not retreat into aggrieved silence or raise her own voice in response. Instead, she flashed that killer smile and said – calmly and unflappably – “Mr Vice President, I am speaking, I am speaking…ok” and Pence (to my relief, at least) shut up. He was at the time insisting that she answer his question!
Forgetting that he was not her interlocutor but merely a fellow participant. That’s a straight-up, every woman recognises it, male power play, by the way – attempting to take control. Harris and Pence tussled over who was in charge of the discussion, and she won. Pence sputtered pompously about wanting it ‘on the record’ that she had not answered ‘the’ (his) question to no avail.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Australia’s poor old women
- Our privileged private schools: Entitlement protected by exclusion
- Canberra’s recession response has been an exercise in refusing to take women seriously
- Shrews, harridans and scolds: The double standard outspoken women face
When Harris felt she needed to rebut something Pence had said, she was steely in requesting extra time. When she spoke passionately or emotionally she came across as genuine. When Pence tried to soar into similar territory rhetorically, I found myself feeling slightly nauseated. Maybe it is my aversion to the lay-preacher in him, but when he said in response to a question about the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of police “Our heart breaks for the loss of any innocent American life…” I flat out did not believe him.
First of all, he appeared not to have decided whether he was speaking for himself or for others and,second of all, there is a lot of baggage in the US attached to that word ‘innocent’ so choosing to use it in that context was jarring.
I am sick and tired of watching women who have honed their diplomatic and communication skills to perfect pitch from necessity, and who know how vital it is they never lose their temper, raise their voice or drop their charm, no matter what the provocation, being held to a higher standard. Harris wiped the floor with Pence. She had better content, did not try to manipulate (or, if she did, she’s so damn good at it, I did not notice) or lecture either her audience or her opponent.
You may notice that I have not attempted to compare the substance of Harris’s responses with those of Pence. That is because I know perfectly well that this – pious rhetoric aside – is not what these debates are about. No one really hears what either politician says. What we do is watch and decide who we prefer. 20% of communication is the content, 80% the context, body language and tone of voice.
Harris understands this, so does Trump. Pence and, sadly, Hilary, not so much.