Thursday, February 5, 2015

Andrew Sullivan, Shrillness, and the Commonweal Worldview: Please Discuss

"Shrill" is a gendered term, isn't it? Especially as it's used in popular-level American political discourse: "Once they started with all that shrill stuff, I stopped listening." 

Shrill: "(of a voice or sound): high-pitched and piercing."

I have the impression, an untested but not untutored one, that the term "shrill" began to be bandied about in American political discourse around the time that women like Gloria Steinem or Jane Fonda came on the scene. It may well have been there before, since gender tagging (in a dismissive way) hardly arrived on the scene in American politics in that era. I'm absolutely certain, thought, that the word "shrill" picked up currency at that point in time as a buzzword, a denunciatory slur, in much political discussion in the media and online, in which sound, sober, deep-voiced men (read: opposite of high-pitched and piercing) deplore the shrillness of, well, those who are not. 

Who are not sound, sober, deep-voiced, measured, full of gravitas. Not folks like us. Who know how to employ reason and to discuss issues dispassionately, without all that messy emotion that people with shrill voices bring to the public forum.

Isn't it interesting that we're being informed that Andrew Sullivan was refreshingly unshrill as a blogger? On what grounds would we have assumed from the outset, I wonder, that he might be expected to be shrill in the first place? 

Do people say, "I learned to respect George W. Bush when I realized he wasn't going to be shrill"? Or, "I'll give to John Boehner: the one thing he has going for him is that he wasn't as shrill as I imagined he would be"?

What does the use of "shrill" as a criterion for establishing seriousness in this Commonweal discussion thread tell us about Commonweal as a discourse community, I wonder? About its commitment to real catholicity, real diversity, really meaningful inclusion?

I myself have found Andrew Sullivan's fixation on deep-voiced, bearded men full of testosterone more than a little off-putting. Give me a bit of shrill any day, rather than that stolid (and rather pathetic and adolescent) mimicry of powerful male beings who imagine the world turns around themselves solely because they own a penis. When Sullivan wrote recently that a certain woman (I forget who she was, honestly) should be taken seriously because she was cool and aggressive (read: like penis-owners), I just about lost my morning porridge as I read. I won't, I have to say, lament the cessation of that kind of ugly, dismissive, eminently gendered (in a dismissive way) discourse at a blog site widely regarded as non-shrill, measured, serious, and Catholic in its instincts.

Interesting, isn't it, how one little recurring word can speak a world of meaning in a discussion like the one now taking place about Andrew Sullivan at Commonweal?

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