Sunday, May 31, 2009

Voice

My daughter-in-law has a lovely voice, a rich alto that reminds me of...well, as I'm trying to think here, strangely enough perhaps, it reminds me of reality. I like soprano voices, too, but rich deep alto voices remind me of the kind of reality that just grabs me and makes me want to pay attention to the world with all its angst and beauty and substance. She, my daughter-in-law, has a great post today about "voice"--not the singing kind, although that's a means of expression, too--but more on the fear of claiming the power of our voices, something lots of people can relate to, I think, and a subject that interests me greatly.

Her words remind me of how difficult it is to sift through the cacophony of "voices" we have in this culture to find those that make sense to us, that provide meaning for our lives, or offer comfort and hope. We have so many idiotic cowards on the national scene who daily scream their vitriolic hubbub. I heard Senator Lindsay Graham on NPR today saying how disturbed he was that Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor said "her voice was better than a white male's voice." I found this on Politico:

She should apologize for a comment she made positing that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

“It is troubling. It’s inappropriate, and I hope she’ll apologize,” Graham told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. “If I had said something like that – or someone with my background and profile [had] – we wouldn’t be talking about this nomination going forward…. she’s got to prove to me that if I find myself in court with a Latina woman, in front of her, I’d get a fair shake, and that’s up to her to do.”


Yep. Leave it up to a white male to use his voice for something like that -- a white male who obviously has NO CLUE how his own privileged social location as a white male can blind and deafen him. Out of his blindness and deafness comes his call to silence the voice of a woman who has experienced life in a way that he, apparently/obviously, could not even imagine. All else being equal, YES, with the richness of that experience her decisions would obviously be better.

Honestly. Get real. There are days when the way we privilege these dishonest, un-thoughtful voices, like Graham's, makes me crazy. I have to turn the radio off.

Existentialist that I am, it's when I hear people speaking with or about authenticity that my ears perk up. The voices I love to hear are those I recognize as coming from a place of genuineness. I want to hear them. I want to know: how have they faced their inner obstacles to self-knowledge? what has their life journey been like? what did they learn? what gives them courage? how does their story of claiming their voice match my own? That's why I loved Obama's Dreams from My Father.

Someone I know was telling me recently about the new minister at his church and how he could tell that this man was a bit nervous in preaching his "try-out" sermon at this huge church. And who wouldn't be nervous, right? The sermon started rather weakly but gained in strength, I was told, when the minister opened up and revealed to the congregation something genuine about himself. That's always a real tightrope...how much to say about oneself in a sermon without making the sermon about you... But this new minister was appropriate in his self-disclosure and that helped the congregants really like and appreciate what he said.

The metaphor of voice is so powerful, isn't it? I spent most of my academic career in silence, listening carefully to the teachers but rarely contributing to the dialogue myself. It's different now. When I have something to contribute, I do, and when I don't have anything to say, I don't worry about it. What freedom!

I wrote something once about "voice" and how important it is for the church to pay attention to this issue. Carol Lakey Hess wrote a great book about it. In the chapter "Rebuilding Our Mothers' House," Hess writes about how pastors can move toward the empowerment of girls and women:

If a leader wishes to create an environment that encourages women as well as men to participate in the conversations of the community, there are a number of small but very significant ways to start, especially in the area of leading discussions.

Leaders often inadvertently reinforce women's invisibility by missing women's cues. Watch for signs -- eye movements and slight body gestures -- indicating interest in joining a discussion and thwarted attempts to enter a fast-moving conversation. Notice these signs and then create a space for her contribution.

A woman's "pause time" may be longer than a man's, and therefore she may wait too long between comments and be unable to insert a comment before another speaker begins. A sensitive leader will watch for this, and will moderate a discussion so that slow pausers who become silenced will have opportunity for re-gaining the floor.

Be aware that the "tentative language" (hedging, qualifying, tag questions) women sometimes use may prompt discussion leaders to tune them out or cut them off prematurely. A leader who recognizes that tentative language may have little relation to a person's grasp of the subject matter is better able to support women's contributions.

Exclusive language contributes to a feeling of invisibility. While using the generic "he" and "mankind" can reduce women's participation, the problem goes beyond that. I've been in countless numbers of lectures where the speaker will say to the audience something like "suppose your wife says to you . . .," which makes women (not to mention single persons) feel as if they are not included. Additionally, it is liberating for leaders to provide examples that do not "mark" women as deviant. I feel that general humanity includes women when I hear someone say "according to biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza," rather than "according to female biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza."


I loved her recognition of "pausers." !! I'm someone who will pause a long time between sentences/thoughts in order to think about what to say next. I've never had the "gift of gab," able to just spew out word after word after word in any kind of coherent way. My synapses just don't work that way! Reading Hess awakened me to this issue in a new way. I listen now for how different people use different styles or modes of speaking in a conversation, and I'm usually quick to go back to someone who was interrupted and ask them if they'd like to continue their thought. And when I'm interrupted repeatedly it makes me angry, angry enough that I have to take action to stop it--or else be angry with myself!

Reminds me also of an article a friend sent to me years ago. It was a Harvard study of the phenomenon of women "feeling like fakes" both in the academic and business worlds. The culture is so anti-women that even when we are perfectly qualified, we still end up thinking we're just faking it, and wondering when someone, someone Who "Really" Knows, is going to pull the curtain back on our "Wizard of Oz" act.

This same article mentioned also what Hess calls "tentative language" and how women are more apt to begin their contributions to a dialogue with "I'm not sure about this, but...." or "You may not think this is right, but....." or "This probably lacks (whatever qualifier), but....."

And of course I was influenced, as many of us were, by the groundbreaking research Carol Gilligan did about girls typically losing their voice after grade school. That's powerful stuff. And Belenky, et. al. and "Women's Ways of Knowing." And Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." Oh, such great books. So formative for me on this issue.

It's just such a perfect metaphor. VOICE. Finding it. Claiming it. Holding it firmly, with love and openness. When we do that, unlike what we get from "newsmakers" on Fox News, our voices are authentic.

And, for me anyway (oops-there's a hedging qualifier for ya!), that's worth hearing.

Let me write that again:

Holding our voices firmly, with love and openness. When we do that, unlike what we get from "newsmakers" on Fox News, our voices are authentic.

And that's worth hearing.

3 comments:

Ava Nell said...

Wonderful post, Katherine! Keep using your voice to speak authentically and powerfully.

mompriest said...

Didn't Mary Pipher also write Women and Desire? Oh, no that was Polly Young-Eisendrath. Still, another good book on what women really want, to be heard and understood and not lost behind the cultural definitions of "woman"...anyway...

thank you for this wonderful post and some new books I haven't read as well as a reminder of some I have!

Purple said...

I too am a pauser, perhaps also due to being an introvert. I have been in those lectures/meetings etc when it is said, "...suppose your wife..." and yes, it gets noticed on two levels. First, I am not a man and I am not married either. Thanks for such powerful words.