Debate, Gender, and Authority

When I wrote about debate as a poor tool for building knowledge a couple of months ago, I left one issue implicit rather than explicit. I did this because it would have derailed discussion around the main point. Why? Because there are issues of parity in debate as well as almost anywhere else.

I argue very well in text. When I set my sights on demolishing what I consider to be an unfounded position (as opposed to discussing, say, what we do and don’t know about a topic), I frequently get comments from people who say they don’t want to get on my bad side. I hear from friends that they don’t want to get on my bad side.

People who don’t like me call it propaganda. They don’t say I’m bad at it. They don’t engage with my arguments. They just suggest that I don’t “play fair”. You know, they lost the argument, but not because they were wrong.

On top of being able to construct convincing, even devastating arguments, I have speech and theater training. I understand how speech, appearance, and body language are projected and read. I’ve rehearsed all of those until they’re largely under my conscious control. As long as I have a microphone to overcome the fact that my voice doesn’t carry, I do well on a stage.

Despite all that, I never get asked to debate.

The closest I’ve come to being asked to debate was hosting a friendly radio debate between atheists and a liberal Christian radio host/pastor with the understanding that I could chime in if I wanted to. I did. I raised issues with the pastor that he hadn’t thought about before.

That was two years ago. No one has suggested I repeat the experience. No one has put my name forward for other debates.

That isn’t a complaint. It is, however, an observation that underlined some of the observations I previously made about debate.

When we debate, we do all we can to be viewed as authoritative. Nearly everything I listed in my last post as having an effect on success in a debate relates to persuading debate audiences to view us as inherently authoritative, lending more credence to our assertions.

Not remotely coincidentally, they also nudge audiences to view us as being as much like affluent white men as possible. Lower voices, business attire, standard diction are all standard fore debate because they’re useful. They’re useful in debate because they mimic those people who are already considered authoritative–affluent white men.

However well I argue, I don’t and typically won’t get asked to represent a group or a position in a debate as long as the outcome of that debate is considered important. When you want to make sure you win, you don’t put a woman behind the podium if you can help it.

We’re just not considered authoritative. It doesn’t matter how expert we are in reality, though it may matter that our opponents are grossly unqualified. It doesn’t matter how well-dressed we are, though it may matter that our opponents look unkempt. It doesn’t matter how poised and practiced we are, though it may matter if our opponents mumble and shuffle.

Though it is possible for a male opponent to lose to a female debater by failing to pay attention to what an audience looks for as signals of authority, but with all else equal, a woman is simply at a disadvantage in persuading a general audience that she carries as much authority as the man next to her.

This isn’t the only place this view of women causes problems, of course. There is the phenomenon Rebecca Solnit described a few years ago, which has since come to be known as “mansplaining”. When a woman starts talking about a topic in which she has interest and knowledge, all too often, a man to whom she is speaking will acknowledge her interest but not her knowledge and start explaining her topic to her.

Nor is this denial of expertise always going to be a net negative in a debate. Women’s competence is sometimes alienating to an audience. In a debate that ultimately hinges on emotion rather than facts, the way abortion debates are often run, a woman may be at an advantage. We are, after all, stereotyped as experts in emotion.

But these represent a small fraction of debates. When you’re debating whether gods exist or debating the politics around the separation of church and state, being perceived as authoritative counts–well beyond expertise itself.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there is nothing I can do to persuade some people that I have any expertise at all. And it’s not for lack of putting out authoritative work.

So you won’t be seeing me on stage for a debate anytime soon. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a complaint. I understand why.

I’d just like us all to look the reasons in the face and understand what it tells us about the validity of debate as a proxy for being right or wrong.

Debate, Gender, and Authority

10 thoughts on “Debate, Gender, and Authority

  1. 2

    I had my little epiphany about this when I was at Uni listening to lectures by a woman lecturer in computer science, with a very high-pitched speaking voice. It seemed obvious a great many of the class were treating her competency as lower than the other lecturers (the other two being men) when she was clearly the equal of one and superior to the other. The situation had provided an object lesson in the fallacy of associating vocal pitch with seriousness or competency, and once you’re aware of it the incongruity of a whole lot of advertising and media becomes apparent.
    There’s also the (I have to say it) sexist aspect that many men are not good at listening to instructions coming from women, and so the public transport where I live have even formalised this in their recorded announcements — instructions where commuters have to do something are more often than not delivered using the recorded male voice, whereas anything that is merely advice or optional is announced by the recorded female voice. It sounds ridiculous that pre-recorded announcements have to reinforce the tone of authority by using a male voice (and it is ridiculous!), but it is also ubiquitous — there are many, many examples of it.

  2. 3

    Stephanie, I thought I’d already left you a comment to point out that your Rebecca Solnit link is borked, but it doesn’t seem to be here and the link still doesn’t work, so I’m leaving it again.

    Otherwise, excellent post – thanks.

  3. 4

    Don’t forget the effect of height. Other things equal (and of course they never are) being taller conveys authority. How much of this is defensive and how much is residual child deference to adults [1] I don’t know, but every study I’ve seen supports it.

    Which, given human sexual dimorphism, just reinforces the rest of what you describe.

    BTW, yesterday $HERSELF was reading to me from a period collection Alice Duer Miller’s poetry. Several were on the subject of being lectured by men on what women think and how they feel.

    [1] Which may play a role in the voice range effect as well.

  4. 7

    During my sociolinguistics lecture the lecturer did a quick show of hands on the topic of gender: Who do you think talks more in a conversation/debate? Who do you think interrupts more? Who do you think explains more?
    On all three questions, the majority of students voted “women” when in fact it’s the other way round. So although women obejecively do those things less, a woman who debated asgainst a man and who talked for less time, iterrupted him less, didn’t give condescending explenations* will still be seen as domineering, impolite, incompetent.

    *I swear I had men who were not OB/Gyns explain to me how pregnancy feels when I was 8 months along

  5. 9

    A lot of ppl mention the depth of voice and height things when this is brought up – sometimes as an antifeminist “rebuttal” that it’s not misogyny or sexism but a phenomenon that cuts across gender. Sounds like bollocks to me but has anyone controlled for height or voice depth? Of course then the question is why those qualities are seen as “better” for authority when they just co-incidentally happen to be more male-typical qualities … But still I’d expect tall women to be cut off in conversation by short men.

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