Cory Booker's harangue of Kirstjen Nielson: Not a gender issue

Many on the right have been bashing Democratic senator Cory Booker for his harangue of Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last Wednesday.  Nielsen said she did not remember the president referring to third-world nations as shitholes.  That would not do for the indignant Booker, who saw complicity with President Trump's so-called racism and bigotry in Nielsen's alleged "amnesia."

In a representative reaction, Michael Ahrens, Republican National Committee rapid response director, said in a news release:

Picture it.  A male Republican senator spends his entire 10 minutes "mansplaining" the female DHS secretary about immigration policy, throws around the term "conscientious stupidity," yells at her the only time she tries to speak, and concludes his diatribe without even asking her to respond.

There'd be so many triggered Democrats that there'd be a hashtag within minutes, campus protests across the country, and the topic[] du[] jour for celebrities at Hollywood's next award show.

The statement is not unreasonable.  Imagine, say, Republican representative Trey Gowdy unleashing his well known ferocity on Democratic representative Maxine Waters.  The left would surely accuse him of sexism and perhaps of racism, too.

Now, Booker, one may well argue, was highly inappropriate not only in his language and tone, but in uncharitably assuming and asserting that Nielsen was "guilty" along with President Trump.  Booker made it seem impossible that Nielsen had simply forgotten whether the controversial words, which the president has denied, were actually spoken.

Suppose Booker had castigated Gowdy.  In this case, of course, there would be no talk of "mansplaining."  Nor would anybody on the right accuse the left of hypocrisy regarding the treatment of women.  But the gender difference calls forth our natural expectation – still strong even in 2018 – that a man should not be as harsh toward a woman as he would be toward a man.  It is partly this, perhaps mostly unconsciously, that lies behind the right's outrage.  Again, we may believe that Booker behaved badly for several reasons. Yet the fact remains: Nielsen being a woman makes his conduct seem a lot worse.

And yet Booker's response to CNN's Jake Tapper is fair.  "It's a little insulting to say that I should be treating Cabinet secretaries one way or another depending upon their gender."  For Booker spoke to Nielsen as if she were a man, and though most people would take issue with how he did so, it remains true that certain situations require aggressive and highly unpleasant language.  There is a time and place for harshness, and if women want to be the equals of men, they must accept combative language, which is unavoidable in some contexts.  As Camille Paglia often stresses, there is more to equality than mere equal opportunity: you must also be tough when circumstances require it.  Like Paglia herself, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders is a wonderful example of that.

To be sure, this need for women to be tough like men is not easy to understand (let alone to practice).  Our common conditioning still reflects the sexes' instinctive differences: women being less disagreeable, on average, than men, just as they are more indirect and less straightforward.  Still, women wanted equality; they got it; and it's important to know that, like life itself, equality can be a lot of hard work.

Nor should the right opportunistically make this a gender issue, as if Booker were wrong because Nielsen is a woman.  It is one thing to find fault with how Booker acted.  It is another to imply that women require or deserve special treatment when it comes to language.

Christopher DeGroot is a contributing editor of New English Review and a columnist at Taki's Magazine.  Follow him at @CEGrotius.

Many on the right have been bashing Democratic senator Cory Booker for his harangue of Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last Wednesday.  Nielsen said she did not remember the president referring to third-world nations as shitholes.  That would not do for the indignant Booker, who saw complicity with President Trump's so-called racism and bigotry in Nielsen's alleged "amnesia."

In a representative reaction, Michael Ahrens, Republican National Committee rapid response director, said in a news release:

Picture it.  A male Republican senator spends his entire 10 minutes "mansplaining" the female DHS secretary about immigration policy, throws around the term "conscientious stupidity," yells at her the only time she tries to speak, and concludes his diatribe without even asking her to respond.

There'd be so many triggered Democrats that there'd be a hashtag within minutes, campus protests across the country, and the topic[] du[] jour for celebrities at Hollywood's next award show.

The statement is not unreasonable.  Imagine, say, Republican representative Trey Gowdy unleashing his well known ferocity on Democratic representative Maxine Waters.  The left would surely accuse him of sexism and perhaps of racism, too.

Now, Booker, one may well argue, was highly inappropriate not only in his language and tone, but in uncharitably assuming and asserting that Nielsen was "guilty" along with President Trump.  Booker made it seem impossible that Nielsen had simply forgotten whether the controversial words, which the president has denied, were actually spoken.

Suppose Booker had castigated Gowdy.  In this case, of course, there would be no talk of "mansplaining."  Nor would anybody on the right accuse the left of hypocrisy regarding the treatment of women.  But the gender difference calls forth our natural expectation – still strong even in 2018 – that a man should not be as harsh toward a woman as he would be toward a man.  It is partly this, perhaps mostly unconsciously, that lies behind the right's outrage.  Again, we may believe that Booker behaved badly for several reasons. Yet the fact remains: Nielsen being a woman makes his conduct seem a lot worse.

And yet Booker's response to CNN's Jake Tapper is fair.  "It's a little insulting to say that I should be treating Cabinet secretaries one way or another depending upon their gender."  For Booker spoke to Nielsen as if she were a man, and though most people would take issue with how he did so, it remains true that certain situations require aggressive and highly unpleasant language.  There is a time and place for harshness, and if women want to be the equals of men, they must accept combative language, which is unavoidable in some contexts.  As Camille Paglia often stresses, there is more to equality than mere equal opportunity: you must also be tough when circumstances require it.  Like Paglia herself, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders is a wonderful example of that.

To be sure, this need for women to be tough like men is not easy to understand (let alone to practice).  Our common conditioning still reflects the sexes' instinctive differences: women being less disagreeable, on average, than men, just as they are more indirect and less straightforward.  Still, women wanted equality; they got it; and it's important to know that, like life itself, equality can be a lot of hard work.

Nor should the right opportunistically make this a gender issue, as if Booker were wrong because Nielsen is a woman.  It is one thing to find fault with how Booker acted.  It is another to imply that women require or deserve special treatment when it comes to language.

Christopher DeGroot is a contributing editor of New English Review and a columnist at Taki's Magazine.  Follow him at @CEGrotius.