When Bernie Sanders used the word "shouting" during the Democratic presidential debate, he was referring to the tone of the gun control debate, not his opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton. Despite how obvious this was, Clinton (or perhaps her advisors) began slowly re-purposing the word as a sexist insult.
She made references to being "silenced" and being "told to quit talking" about gun control, one issue on which she differs sharply with Sanders. Finally, during a speech Friday at the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum, she went with the strategy full tilt. "When women talk," she said, "some people think we're shouting."
The quote quickly became immortalized as the kind of bromide-in-a-text-box that gets passed around on social media because it's mistaken for wisdom. In spirited "You go, girl" fashion, women cheered Clinton on and backed her up, channeling their real-life grievances through this pretend affront and chalking Sanders up as sexist, even though his record on women is pretty spotless.
Let's say Sanders had accused Clinton of shouting; a better response from her would have been, "It takes one to know one." Sanders, as anyone can tell, is a world-class shouter. He shouts from the podium, where his volume not only goes up to 11 but also usually starts somewhere around eight. He's been known to shout at interviewers even when they're sitting a foot away. According to reports, he shouts at his staff. No matter where he is or what he's talking about, his delivery sounds like he's trying to order a bagel with a schmear in a cacophonous New York deli.
Was that an anti-Semitic thing to say? No, and it wouldn't have been sexist to say that Clinton shouts about gun control. Because Clinton is a shouter. Not the bellicose kind, like Sanders, but the testy, scolding kind. Her rhetorical effect sometimes brings to mind a parent counting slowly to three in an effort to get a recalcitrant child to stop whatever it is she's doing right now.
"I want her to take a voice class," comedian and actress Sarah Silverman said in an interview a few years ago. "She's so smart and has so much to say and can change the world, but she's talking like she's yelling at you. She sounds like a mom who's yelling at you. And it triggers a response."
Of course, Silverman said this before the public was exposed to Carly Fiorina, who, at her most vehement, sounds like someone else's mom yelling at you, which is exponentially more terrifying.
But as much as we're triggered by the wrath of our moms, nothing sends us running to their defense faster than hearing someone yell at them.
Hence the boost Clinton achieved after Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi spent 11 hours last week haranguing her, often in a way that could fairly be characterized as shouty. At one point, Rep. Trey Gowdy (the committee's GOP chairman) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (the ranking Democrat) got into a full-fledged shouting match as Clinton just sat, quiet and bemused.
Though some feminists latched onto the idea that the whole display was an example of a woman being bullied by men, it mostly seemed like yet another case of a Clinton being hectored by Republicans. But this time, the attempt to demonize elicited mostly sympathy. Clinton was spectacularly poised and focused. Even more remarkable, she exuded a lightness that was miles away from the air of huffy indignation that often plagues her.
Joking (or attempting to joke) with the hopelessly literal Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who asked whether the former secretary of State had been home alone "the whole night" of the attacks in Benghazi, Clinton came across as someone for whom yelling — not to mention yelling about yelling — was simply unnecessary. She laughed.
But soon enough, she was right back at it. The next night at the Women's Leadership Forum, she couldn't resist going for low-hanging fruit, loudly. Out came the "When women talk, some people think we're shouting" line. Sanders, meanwhile, shouted to CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday that he had not accused Clinton of shouting.
Maybe that will settle things. Because if Fiorina winds up having anything to say about this, a lot of us are going to be running to our moms in tears.