January 12, 2008

Political physiology

Today's Cathy illustrates our cultures' obsession with the physiology of emotional states, and the associated propensity to magnify out of all proportion every outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual feeling:

Remember the NYT's venture into the phrenology of political perception? Now imagine if the political candidates themselves were wired up for real-time physiological monitoring...

That isn't going to happen -- outside of science fiction -- so the herds roaming the media savannahs have to make do with interpreting small changes in voice quality and facial appearance. The latest amazing example: Google News returns 2,746 news stories, from all over the world, in response to a search for {Hillary tears}.

A tiny sample: Newsweek, "The Politics of Tears"; BBC News, "Hillary's tears"; Washington Post, "Crying Likeable Tears"; Seattle Post Intelligencer, "Clinton rebrands herself by display of emotion"; Financial Times, "Tears for ballot-box fears"; The Guardian, "For crying out loud!"; Bangor Daily News, "The Politics of Weeping has Evolved". The big-time "new media" have been playing variations on pretty much the same tune: Salon, "Hillary without tears"; Huffington Post, "There's No Crying in Baseball -- Or the Race to be President";

And then there was Rush Limbaugh's "Why Mrs. Clinton's Tears Worked",

"This comes under the umbrella of Rush knows women, and I do, I know what makes 'em tick. ... I mean I know women as much as possible, which is not really very much, but I got it figured out I think as much as anybody can, let's put it that way. ... [and] the fastest way to a woman's heart is cry, the emotional, it's a magnet."

And last but not least, the egregious Maureen Dowd's contribution, "Can Hillary Cry her Way Back to the White House?"

The blog Feminist Philosophers asks "Have You Actually Seen It?", and embeds John Stewart's commentary, which uses his trademark silent pause to perfection:

FP also presents this well-aimed cartoon by Tom Toles.

The great thing about stereotypes is that they're so remarkably resistant to the influence of mere facts.

Since the Hillary's-tears story is mostly about individual and group stereotypes, it's ironic that the most sensible mass-media commentary on this issue comes from a comedian and a cartoonist, who normally trade in caricatures for a living.

In any case, it certainly is lucky that the transformation bemoaned in Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur is incomplete. Imagine how this story might have been handled if we didn't have a quorum of journalistic professionals to set the tone!

[Speaking of professionalism -- now that Hillary has been rebranded in a softer style, I'm waiting for the resurrection of the old Jean Houston story, so spectacularly misreported by Bob Woodward in his 1996 book The Choice ...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 12, 2008 11:47 AM