Thursday, July 01, 2010

Kathleen Parker: Obama's Not Girlie - Just Lacking Testosterone

The Economist's Language Johnson blog, in which its correspondents discuss the use of language, recently debunked an analysis of President Obama's BP speech, which Paul J.J. Payack of the "Global Language Monitor" claimed to have been at a 9.8 grade level and was thus above the heads of his listeners.
Microsoft Word can calculate the "Flesch-Kincaid" reading level for any bit of text. It tells me that the Gettysburg Address is on a 10.9 reading level, and the first section of Winston Churchill's storied "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech rates a downright incomprehensible 12.6. Yet of course neither speech is called "professorial". It seems that for the gullible reporters at CNN passing along Mr Payack's "analysis", confirmation bias is alive and well.
Language Log on the simplistic analysis used by Payack:
I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster. Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!
Unfortunately for Kathleen Parker, while she obviously got the memo that she's supposed to attack President Obama as a girly-man, she apparently doesn't follow The Economist closely enough to avoid being, in its words, gullible. (She actually writes, "No, I'm not calling Obama a girlie president", before proceeding to attempt exactly that - again.)

After telling us that "Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan," Parker writes,
When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.
Yes... he's so chatty, and so unable to shut up that it took him eight weeks to address the subject that Kathleen Parker thinks he should have been sounding off about from day one. Obviously she could argue that he's being aloof, unconcerned about the feelings of a region and nation that wants nothing more at a time of crisis than a strong presidential shoulder to cry on and some sort of many combination of "There, there, it's alright" and "I'm gonna beat the tarballs out of BP" - yet just like a man he didn't even notice the nation's emotional needs. Somebody who took that opposite view of the same behavior might even see Obama as demonstrating "cool detachment"... oh, wait.

But no, she complains that he used the passive voice. A manly President would never say something in the passive voice, like "Mistakes were made". (Ahem.) Of course, by limiting the "analysis" to "this century", we're effectively talking about only two Presidents and two sets of speechwriters - about as deliberately non-scientific an example as you can obtain.

Further, Sullivan offers nothing to suggest that use of the passive voice is more common for women than for men. She appears to grasp the word "passive" and conclude, "That references a personality trait" instead of "That means the subject in a sentence receives the action with the use of a passive verb." ("Mistakes were made," as opposed to "We made mistakes.")

With a bit more digging, Parker would have discovered that Payack's analysis of the use of the "passive voice" is anything but reliable. Payack "analyzed" the Vice-Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, stating that the passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility and that it was heavily used by Palin, implying that her use was to distance herself from Bush and Cheney. However,
There are (by my count) eight passive clauses in this dataset, occurring in seven sentences, so 9% percent of her sentences have at least one passive clause. But let’s look at representative examples of these passives:

(3a) “And our commanders on the ground will tell us when those conditions have been met.”

(3b) “[...] those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”

(3c) “No Child Left Behind was implemented.”

None of these use the passive to deflect responsibility. In fact, in all of these sentences, the agents would probably be proud to be explicitly named. “Me! It’s me who is not allowing a dangerous regime to obtain nuclear weapons!”, they’d scream.
Payack also reported that Palin spoke at the tenth grade level, and Biden at the eighth - after all, under Flesch-Kincaid, long, convoluted sentences test at a higher "grade level" than short, clear sentences, even when the thought being expressed is simple, incomplete, inarticulate, or platitudinous. Also, when you're analyzing a speech, the manner of transcription can change the result - if thoughts are transcribed as separated by commas instead of periods, the "grade level" goes up. (The post uses an example "I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." - that's supposedly a ninth grade level sentence, but if you change the comma to a period the two sentences score at third grade level.) The grade will also be inflated by speech errors.
Readability tests like Flesch-Kincaid are inherently imprecise, even for written text. When you try applying them to speech, the resulting number is pretty much meaningless. A precise estimate of the difficulty of a sentence requires psycholinguistic testing, not just pressing F7 in Word.
This isn't the first time Payack has excited the armchair psychologists of the right wing. A couple of years ago he wrote that Obama said "I" more than McCain during a presidential debate, kicking off a series of attacks on Obama as self-absorbed, even narcissistic. (That that type of analysis seems to tell us more about the speaker and their views of the subject than about the subject of their comments. The same people who hated Obama in 1998 and saw him as a narcissist are likely also happy to dismiss him as feminized, without regard to whether the two lines of attack are consistent.)

Parker also relies upon an article by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, written in 1998, that describes how Hillary Clinton was attacked "for the sin of talking like a lawyer and, by extension, 'like a man.'" Parker asks,
Could it be that Obama is suffering from the inverse?
You mean, could somebody who knows next to nothing about linguistics accuse President Obama of speaking like a woman, as part of a larger effort to diminish and marginalize him? Think really hard, Ms. Parker - where could you find the answer to that question.
Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that men are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy - clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence, and preempting opposing positions.

I'm not so sure. The masculine-coded context of the Oval Office poses special challenges, further exacerbated by a crisis that demands decisive action.
I somehow missed Parker's years of criticism, whether of President Reagan or President Obama, that they lacked testosterone. I have somehow missed Parker's analysis of Reagan's eight years, with her wringing her hands about how indecisive he was.

Parker also abuses Toni Morrison's comment about Bill Clinton:
When Morrison wrote in the New Yorker about Bill Clinton's "blackness," she cited the characteristics he shared with the African American community:
"Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
If we accept that premise, even if unseriously proffered, then we could say that Obama displays many tropes of femaleness. I say this in the nicest possible way. I don't think that doing things a woman's way is evidence of deficiency but, rather, suggests an evolutionary achievement.
(Evolution? Just like with Hillary Clinton, we should take it as a compliment, right?) Parker's is the popular conception of the phrase, but that doesn't mean it's correct:
[Morrison's] words have been used frequently and almost always out of their original context, as a way of signaling Bill Clinton's supposed comfort with and advocacy for black people, to the extent that Hillary Clinton even attempted to joke that she was "in this interracial marriage."

A look at the context of the words at the source is illuminating.... Morrison was not saying that Bill Clinton is America's first black president in a cute or celebratory way, nor was she calling Clinton an "honorary Negro." Rather, she was comparing Clinton's treatment at the hands of Starr and others with that of black men, so often seen as "the always and already guilty 'perp.'"
So, Ms. Parker, when you reflect on your work are you going to tell us, "Mistakes were made," or, "I made mistakes"?

Update: My analysis focuses principally on how Parker's argument is not logically supported. It's very much deserving of analysis based upon Parker's assumptions about the role of women and what it means to be a woman. See, for example, Feministe and Politics Daily. Nisha Chittal at Feministe reminds me of Parker's impression of Alan Alda, something that has always had me scratching my head,
Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.
For some reason, Alan Alda earned a public image as a new age, sensitive guy for his depiction of Hawkeye Pierce on MASH. Except Hawkeye's interactions with women were almost exclusively either focused on putting his superior officer, Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, in her place, or bedding a woman from the nursing staff. Sure, he used charm whereas a caricature of Genghis Khan might be expected to take the "rape, loot and pillage" approach to the fairer sex, but his chatter was literally intended to charm the pants off of his female co-workers.

To Parker, that means Hawkeye was somehow feminized? Or does Parker see Hawkeye as weak because he was opposed to war, and directed angry rhetoric at the heads of state responsible for sending him into what he perceived to be a futile war? If it's the latter, does she truly believe Hawkeye would view Obama as a kindred spirit, or as personifying the magnification of his beliefs? One way or another, Hawkeye seems like a terrible example of the new age, sensitive, "feminized" man.

Update 2: Language Log takes on Payack's claims and finds them wanting:
The real point emerges if you look at the passive examples themselves. I will list all of them, with the passive clause (the passive participle together with its complements including the agent by-phrase if there is one) underlined in each phrase quoted. Judge for yourself the extent to which these phrases look as if they were "used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular 'doer' of an action" — Payack's version of a familiar but thoroughly ignorant claim about the function of passives:

Passive clauses (underlined) in Obama's post-oil-leak speech
  1. Seventeen others were injured

  2. a team led by Dr. Steven Chu

  3. a relief well … that's expected to stop the leak

  4. an effort led by Admiral Thad Allen

  5. millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water

  6. five and a half million feet of boom has been laid

  7. the second thing we're focused on

  8. areas where the beaches are not yet affected

  9. their way of life may be lost

  10. whatever resources are required

  11. the workers and business owners who have been harmed

  12. this fund will not be controlled by BP

  13. to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid

  14. the account must and will be administered by an independent third party

  15. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents

  16. the necessary precautions would be taken

  17. known as the Minerals Management Service

  18. a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves
    industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight

  19. Oil companies … were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections

  20. the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered

  21. the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor

  22. an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude

  23. there are costs associated with this transition

  24. the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II

  25. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon

  26. a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe

  27. It's called "The Blessing of the Fleet"

  28. a blessing that's granted
Tell me the truth: can you truly say that you think phrases like seventeen were injured, or a team led by Dr. Chu, or expected to stop the leak, or a way of life may be lost, or the resources that are required, or his days are numbered, or threatened by a menacing cloud, or costs associated with it, or brought from Europe, sound girly?
The author points out that Obama even used a passive phrase ("At this agency [the Minerals Management Service], industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight") to direct responsibility.
Interpreting a raw frequency count of passive clauses as a measure of shiftiness or evasion is outright and obvious stupidity. But that's what Payack does. Parker merely stretches things to draw an even sillier conclusion (one that Payack cannot be blamed for) by confusing use of passive clauses with speaking like a woman.

Update 3: Parker offers some peculiar defenses of her column. She deflects, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say she ignores, all substantive criticism with,
Do I think people are too sensitive? Yes. Do I think I may have overstepped the line? No. It's a column, not a dissertation.
Let's be honest here - Parker was simply picking up a theme she has run with before, and which is being actively advanced by other, similarly situated Republican party hacks. She was in all likelihood coming up on a deadline, found herself with nothing new to say, stumbled across the Payack "analysis" and, without bothering to lift a finger to verify its accuracy or relevance, latched onto it as her opportunity to "phone in" her column. She either doesn't understand the difference between "passive voice" and passivity, or knows the difference but thought it was nonetheless a cute way to attack the President's masculinity, and has no real defense for writing a truly crappy column. But it's all about controversy, right? People talk about her column, she gets to write a second column defending the first, and her editors are happy because she's generating page views, facts and accuracy be damned.

So beyond, "It's just a column, so why would you expect it to be something better than half-baked nonsense," Parker also defends herself,
I don't view Obama exclusively as a black man -- no matter what he said on his census form. Not only is he half-white, but also he has managed to transcend skin color, at least from where I sit.
Strange.... It was not so long ago that Parker, while using the same line about Bill Clinton didn't seem to have difficulty identifying Barack Obama as a black man:
The contest between a black man and white woman for the Democratic nomination is both historic and fascinating to watch.
Did something change?
As a sidebar, there's another reason I don't see him as only black. He is my cousin. I had intended to save this nugget for a future column, but now seems as good a time as any to brag.... According to the family grid, Obama and I seem to be eighth cousins once removed.
Okay, so if you're related to Kathleen Parker she can't perceive you as black... but what does that mean for her argument that he's not a full-blooded American?
But that bond doesn't blind me to his -- and our -- flaws.
Meaning... Parker thinks she and Obama are both lacking in testosterone?

Meanwhile, let me just say that I'm proud that I'm related to every person on this planet in one attenuated way or another. It took a lot of effort, and... yeah.
Obama elected to employ a certain type of rhetoric in the Oval Office that put him in line with feminine rhetorical traditions and at odds with historical precedent and the expectations for his gender. Such a choice ultimately may prove to be a crucial step forward toward a better world. But the backlash against his rhetoric suggests we're not there yet.
Okay, so we're back to the premise - that there's something feminine about Barack Obama and his manner of speech. The basis of the argument is that he doesn't display enough public anger, and the nonsensical notion that it's automatically feminine to use the passive voice in a speech, facts (again) be damned.

Accusing Obama of "suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit"? I guess the take-away is supposed to be that Parker meant that as a... compliment.


  1. Given that Elliott Spitzer is something of a pointy-headed intellectual (as she perceives Obama) who is also a persecuted womanizer (per Morrison's view of Clinton), I wonder whether she'll write a column themed, "Put away the axes because I mean this in a good way, but I think it will be a lot of fun to cohost my show with a guy who, in so many ways, is a black woman."

  2. Parker just can't imagine a worse possible insult than "you are like a woman". Somebody needs to gently inform her that she'll never be awarded a penis.


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