When will Bernie Sanders learn? If Hillary Clinton interrupts him while he is speaking, his job is to shut up and listen to whatever she has to say with gratitude
Identity Politics crept in to the latest Democratic primary debate on Sunday night in a particularly harrowing episode for all American women.
On Sunday night, Bernie Sanders was in the middle of explaining his rationale for having reservations about the 2008 auto bailout — too much of the aid went to Wall Street — when former Hillary Clinton interrupted. Clinton got out a few words before Sanders, hand raised and moving in the (surprisingly tight) space between the two candidates and interjected.
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” he said.
If you are still waiting for the scandalous part, you just missed it. That was it. Hillary Clinton interrupted Bernie Sanders while he was talking, and Sanders tried to continue his point by saying “excuse me, I’m talking”.
But something which to normal people might look like the bread and butter of political television debating is instead being whipped up into a narrative of Bernie Sanders’ deep-rooted, festering misogyny and his barely concealed contempt for Hillary Clinton on account of her gender.
Clinton is the first woman with a serious shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, and therefore the first woman to spend this much time on debate stages with competition. And this is the age of Twitter, where what feel like the independently formed opinions and reactions of ordinary voters are super easy to access. And indeed, there were many reporters who wrote about this moment by quoting and pulling in other reporters’ totally serious tweets.
It all seems a bit light on substance and heavy on reaction — and reactions to reactions. And no one can climb inside Sanders’ mind and say with utter clarity what was swirling inside it. We do know that Clinton was the more experienced presidential debater on that stage. She also, by now, knows about Sanders’, shall we say, tendency to respond to Clinton with curmudgeonly chastisements and finger wags. He has said and done a few things in previous debates that people have described as chauvinistic. By that logic, Clinton may have interrupted Sanders on purpose in hopes that something like the “excuse me” moment would happen.
One could speculate a great deal about that. But then there is this: Why, at this late date and this many debates into the 2016 presidential election cycle, has Sanders made demonstrably little to no effort to alter the way he interacts with the woman he at least strongly suspected would be running against him from the day he declared his campaign? He has almost certainly had the same advice and information that every male candidate gets about the need to be constantly mindful about coming across like a chauvinist or a bully when on a debate stage facing a female competition.
“A bit light on substance” is an understatement for the ages. There was a time not so long ago where if either of the two candidates were to be admonished for anything, it would have been the candidate who interrupted, not the one who firmly but politely continued to make their point. But of course that was before the corrosive Politics of Identity began to eat away at our culture and our political discourse. And now, what each candidate thinks, says and does is far less important than who they are and into which identity categories they fall.
Now, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both happen to be white, so that already puts them near the top of the Hierarchy of Oppression, vicariously responsible for all of the ills and misfortunes suffered by those beneath them. But Clinton has a slight advantage in that she also happens to identify as a female. And because the patriarchy (no further explanation needed), Sanders squeaks above Clinton to the top of the Oppression Pyramid, which means that our sympathies and bias must rest with her, whether she happens to be right or not on any given issue.
Only by viewing the exchange through this distorting lens of Identity Politics can one watch the exchange and come away with the impression that Hillary Clinton has been oppressed by a “chauvinistic” Bernie Sanders. Yet this is indeed what some people believe, and because they perceived Sanders to be behaving in a sexist way, under the Law of Identity Politics it is the responsibility of Sanders to modify his behaviour to correct that perception, even though it is a demonstrably false one.
In other words, as Janell Ross reminds us, something can be sexist simply because another person – even someone totally unconnected with the event – perceives it as being so:
Does Sanders have the capacity to recognize the way these moments look or think deeply about the degree to which sexism propels his debate-stage performances? Whether that chauvinism is real or imagined or even toyed with by his opponent for political gain, why can’t Sanders find a better way to manage these moments? And is some combination of all of the above something that a 21st-century presidential candidate has simply got to consider and manage effectively?
Does the inability or unwillingness to examine his body language, tone and actions for hints or indicators of sexism — if not real but perceived by some women — tell us all what we really need to know?
Yes! Doesn’t Bernie Sanders’ failure to modify his entire manner of speaking and body language in order to address perceptions of a sexism which doesn’t even exist tell us all that we need to know about just what a horrible person he is?
Though this seems (and is) utterly ridiculous, it is neither new nor unexpected. Modern hate speech laws and the actions of Western governments to suppress or discourage the exercise of free speech are based on the same principle – that it is the perceptions of the offended party which matter most of all, and which must be flattered and mollified at all costs.
But who is really demeaning and belittling women here? Is it Bernie Sanders, who clearly views Clinton as a formidable opponent (she is the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, after all) and debates her with gusto, or is it the virtue-signalling feminist “allies” who go riding to her defence after a debate because they believe that women cannot withstand being contradicted with firm but polite words and one of Bernie Sanders’ ubiquitous (and non gender-specific) dismissive hand gestures?
Of course it is the people now crying “sexism!” who are themselves guilty of behaving in a truly sexist way, by treating a rich, powerful, well-connected 21st century American woman (Clinton) as somehow less capable than a somewhat less rich, less powerful, less well-connected man (Sanders), and consequently in need of their finger-wagging intercession on her behalf. But so powerful is the weapon that they wield – labelling their targets as sexist, chauvinist or even misogynist – that it is often easier to acquiesce rather than stand up to the Identity Politics power play.
Therefore, if he is to survive the Democratic Party primary season without having his reputation and good name completely torn to shreds, Bernie Sanders would do well to learn one valuable lesson: the next time that Hillary Clinton interrupts him, his role as a white cis man is to stand there meekly and just let her talk out the rest of the debate.
It’s the socially just way to behave.
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