SYNDICATED COLUMN: Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming

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America squandered an important national moment.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh wept. On national TV. For 45 minutes. The startling visual of a top-tier political figure quaveringly weaving between the emotional cones of anger, embarrassment and despair had the potential to launch a national conversation about masculinity and society’s response to men who lay bare their emotions.

Men need permission to cry, to be vulnerable, too. The #MeToo movement is giving women permission to proclaim their victimhood without shame. Under better circumstances Kavanaugh’s display might have given leave to American men to admit that they too are emotional beings, that they hurt and feel as much as women.

Instead of a national conversation about masculinity and gender norms we got predictable partisan politics.

“A crying Brett Kavanaugh. This is what white male privilege looks like,” sneered the headline of an op-ed by The Sacramento Bee’s Erika D. Smith.

Scorn was the standard liberal response to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s furious, weepy reading of his prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Men, particularly white and privileged men, find that they can get away with acting like colicky children, and they are infantilized when it suits them,” Jamil Smith lectured in Rolling Stone, equating acting out with childishness. “His testimony was a tantrum.” Smith’s emotion-shaming piece was titled “Brett Kavanaugh’s Fragile Manhood.” Not very PC.

Conservatives were no less hypocritical.

Right-wingers broke macho form in the divide over gender norms, defending their sobbing nominee. During the break between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s appearances Rush Limbaugh presciently mused aloud: “Do you think Kavanaugh should cry?” Rush answered his own question: “Noooo.” Team politics prevailed. Despite the judge’s failure to take his on-air advice Rush later pronounced himself pleased: “He unloaded on them!”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive considering a 2020 presidential run, mirrored Trump’s description of Kavanaugh but for Dr. Ford: “brave, compelling, and credible.” Calling Kavanaugh “unhinged,” she said he “whined, ranted, raved, and spun conspiracy theories.” Praise versus contempt: the personal has never been more political. Had the roles been reversed, had Dr. Ford been the angry/weepy one, there is no world in which Warren would have described her as unhinged.

“I don’t believe in crying,” Trump told a biographer. “It’s just not my thing. I have nothing against it when someone cries, but when I see a man cry, I view it as a weakness. I don’t like seeing men cry.”

Crying makes me uncomfortable too. “The feminization of America,” a conservative colleague texted me as we watched Kavanaugh. Initially I agreed. Watching a man cry gives me what Germans call fremdscham: vicarious embarrassment for someone else. John Wayne didn’t do waterworks and neither do most guys. Studies find that men cry about one-fifth as often as women.

Were Kavanaugh’s tears the frustrated, desperate expression of an innocent man falsely accused before his friends, family and an entire nation? Or, as one of detractors alleged, did he wimper “because his past finally caught up with him and deep down, he knows it”? Could it be something in between, a blend of anger because some of the accusations are false and self-pity because others are true? We’ll probably never know what really happened at those high school and college parties.

But we don’t need to know why Kavanaugh cried to see why they matter.

However you assess Kavanaugh’s tears, they marked a giant leap for public emotionalism and a major political moment for malekind. Even in a Democratic primary campaign so dominated by liberals that George McGovern ultimately won, Edmund Muskie’s teary press conference defending his wife’s honor in New Hampshire made him look like a wimp. It marked the beginning of the end of his 1972 campaign—and he cried a lot less than Kavanaugh.

After Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder broke down during her announcement that she wouldn’t run for president in 1988, The Chicago Tribune reported that “women reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust” over a display that seemed to reinforce the sexist stereotype that women were too emotional to lead.

Twenty years makes a difference. Running against Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton cultivated a steely Maggie Thatcher-like image—and watched her polls sink. “If you get too emotional, that undercuts you. A man can cry—but a woman, that’s a different kind of dynamic,” Clinton observed. Turns out, voters don’t really want female versions of Spock from Star Trek. Talking about the toll of campaigning at a New Hampshire diner, she shed a few drops in search of a boost. The brief emotional display was almost certainly planned but she won the primary.

If the ideological shoe were on the other foot, if Kavanaugh were a Democrat and he were being grilled by Republicans, I bet my fellow lefties would embrace this moment. They wouldn’t be contemptuous. Far from questioning his judicial temperament because he cried, they’d applaud his courage. Conversely, Dr. Ford’s story might be disbelieved because she kept it together and stayed calm.

Men may not cry as much as women. Some scientists think testosterone inhibits tear flow. All the same, it is natural. “All their lives they were told, ‘Real men don’t cry,’ yet studies show how crying is a way for the body to release toxins from the body,” Sam Louie wrote In Psychology Today. “From a physiological perspective, when humans get stressed there is an increase in adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).  Over time as this builds it leads to more stress that demands to be released.”

For a political figure like Kavanaugh, however, research suggests that crying in public can achieve something even more important than releasing toxins: being relatable. According to a 2013 Tilburg University study published in Evolutionary Psychology, “respondents report being more willing to provide support to people with visible tears than to those without tears.”

Interestingly the left-leaning commentators opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation focused on the nominee’s anger more than his tears. Tacit approval or fremdscham?

There’s nothing like a good cry. Men want that privilege too.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

16 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming

  1. I disagree Ted. You were right the first time. As a very young man my father told me, “Andy, you need to learn to control your emotions because as a man, your job is to lead when disaster strikes. You cannot lead if you are crying or angry because you will not be able to rationally determine the appropriate course of action or the right words to steady the situation”. It old fashion but his advice has served me well in the construction business where disasters do strike and the engineer needs to stay cool. Also one of the most important adult lessons is that life goes on and most things aren’t that big a deal in a couple years. Real men hold it together in public except when something is funny or kick-ass. Laughing and cheering are fine, and speaking loudly on public transit in Europe is important to show those euros how Americans kick ass.

  2. There’s a big difference between people like Kavanaugh and the rest of us. Kavanaugh, like Dubya, had his whole life planned out when he was born. He’d go to a specific prep school, then to a good law school, and his family would guide him the whole way along. And that was his whole life along the way: he never got to ask himself the big questions, he never got to genuinely prove himself. His successes were always pre-ordained, and his failures never set him back. How can you learn anything meaningful from driving a company into bankruptcy if daddy simply hands you another company to destroy? (Yes, Dubya, I mean you.)

    One of the big parts of masculinity is the whole thing about proving yourself. YOU go out and do things. YOU win the fight. YOU endure. Not, I got into Yale because there was no fucking way they weren’t going to accept me in the first place.

    Why do you think Dubya and Kavanaugh drank so much? Because neither ever got to be president of the United States? No. Because at some level that they probably aren’t even consciously aware of, both realize that they never earned any of their laurels. Dubya can tell himself all he wants about how great he is, but he knows he’s always confused and can’t point to a single thing in his entire life that was actually HIS accomplishment, rather than someone else’s setting all the circumstances in his favor.

    Why was Kavanaugh so outraged? Because he HAS to be. If he isn’t, he might have to confront that moment where he finally realizes that he’s not very much of a man at all.

    You’d cry too.

    • My aunt used to tell her daughter, my cousin, to keep crying because then she wouln’t have to pee so much.

      I think my aunt made that up herself, though.

    • «What toxins are released by tears?» In its fairly detailed article on the phenomenon – or, more accurately, phenomena – of crying, the English-language edition of Wikipedia cites two sources which elucidate the different compositon of tears shed during «emotional crying» and other forms : «Tears produced during emotional crying have a chemical composition which differs from other types of tears. They contain significantly greater quantities of the hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and Leu-enkephalin, and the elements potassium and manganese.»

      Perhaps when your FBI does another quickie on dear Mr Kavanaugh, the type of tears he shed at this Senate hearing could be investigated (no doubt they left a trace which the organisation’s forensic scientists are capable of unravelling…. 😉

      Henri

      • I was somewhat aware of the differing chemical compositions of tears based on the cause of the tears, but my question remains: do tears remove “toxins”? I accept that tears can contain compounds but I still don’t see that (a la “Fantastic Voyage”) there is some excretory route for eliminating toxins that has the tear duct as the exit point. The liver breaks down a lot of toxins, the kidneys filter out various things, some toxins simply go out through the body via the same route most solids do.

        I guess it’s just me being difficult. And for the record, I was like this watching the old Star Trek series too. “What the hell does McCoy have in that hypospray anyway. It seems he’s already ready with exactly what’s needed.” My conclusion on that was that he had something like one of those Bic four-color pens: sedative, painkiller, psychotropic, sugar-pill.

      • «… my question remains: do tears remove “toxins”?» Everything depends upon what one means by «toxins», Alex, as Paracelsus famously observed, «Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift; allein die dosis machts, daß ein Ding kein Gift sei.»….

        Be that as it may, I found it interesting to note that the composition of the tears shed by Mr Kavanaugh during the hearing might possibly provide evidence as to whether he was acting as coached or really was emotionally engaged. In any event, I suspect that we agree that Mr Kavanaugh is not the sort of person one would like to see as a justice on the US Supreme Court….

        Henri

  3. I dunno, Ted, I while I hear you on male tears in general, I think these particular tears were so embedded in, enmeshed with his overall performance of anger, entitlement, and insolence that it’s pretty understandable they did not get the attention you’re calling for. As an alternative, say Al Franken had shed a few tears in the midst of his thoughtful, respectful resignation from the Senate. That would have been very different, no? But with Kavanaugh the tears were just part of a great big mess, and the mess was the thing.

    • Agreed.

      Dry alcoholics, like George W. Bush, can be real mean SOBs.

      Kavanaugh must have been trying to kill something inside himself with all that drinking.

      I think I saw a bit of what it was he was trying to kill show through in his testimony.

      Mean SOB.

  4. Yes, men – and especially American men – need to drop the machismo pretense. Show emotion in public, acknowledge softer emotions, pet kittens and cry when the need arises. Nothing wrong with that.

    But there is something wrong with an emotional meltdown from a candidate for Supreme Court Justice. That was closer to a temper tantrum from a spoiled five-year-old than anyone who is mature enough to sit on The Bench.

    Over 2400 law professors signed a letter proclaiming him unfit based on his outburst – not all of them believed his accuser, but they did all believe that his reaction should disqualify him.

    • I agree, I think he was unfit for the job for a variety of reasons and his inability to control himself was part of that. I can think of times when I was under considerably more pressure than he was and I didn’t buckle like that. He was on national television and he should’ve known better.

      • Well, yes, to basically all of it. But the thing that struck me wasn’t the crying (that seemed staged). What struck me was that he looked like a junkie. I was watching without the sound, and he was jerking, and sniffling, he looked like he had short circuited. It was truly weird. As mentioned above, that could be that’s he’s an alcoholic, dry or otherwise. But to me he looked like the people I knew in the 80s who snorted a lot of coke.

    • I remember a time when I cried unashamedly.

      I tried to stop a guy from kicking in another guy’s face.

      My my quiet suggestion to the face-kicker that the fight was over and that he could now stop kicking was met with an attempt by him to pull my eyes out.

      I managed to keep turning my head so he couldn’t get a finger firmly into my eye socket and then I lifted him up and smashed his head into a cinder block wall with as much force as I could muster.

      The face-kicker’s head and arm were pretty damaged, and when he slumped to the ground his eye gouging hand went limp, and I and my eyes were OK.

      Then I cried like a baby because I was having the shitiest Christmas Eve of my life.

      • Oh, and fuck that cry baby pussy Kavanaugh.

        It was by the likes of his type (and he wasn’t even born yet) that I was in a situation where things could go so bad so fast.

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