Race, Gender, and Political Speech: An Interview with Gabriella Licata

Gabriella Licata

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was insulted on the Capitol steps in July 2020, it was a brief media sensation. But what does being called an “effing bitch” mean for how we think about political speech? 

Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, joined Julia Sizek for this episode of the Matrix Podcast to discuss how the standard language ideologies of political speech come to shape perceptions of language and people in Congress. Licata utilizes mixed methodologies to assess language behavior and linguistic bias in sociolinguistic experiments, social media, and political discourse.

The interview focuses largely on Licata’s recently published paper in the Journal of Language and Discrimination, “Sorry, not sorry: Ted Yoho’s infelicitous apology as reification of toxic masculinity,” which analyzes the aftermath of an insult on the Capitol steps and what it reveals about the norms of American political speech.

Excerpts from the interview are included below (edited for length and content). A full, unedited transcript is available here.

Q: Let’s jump in by discussing the event that your paper is about, which is when Ted Yoho insulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol on July 28 2020. What happened, and who witnessed the event?

Gabriella Licata: This was highly publicized at the moment, and it hasn’t been spoken of much since then. But basically, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [AOC] had participated in a virtual town hall in her New York District. She had mentioned that people are suffering due to the effects of the pandemic, and there are urgent poverty issues that aren’t being addressed. People don’t have food, people don’t have their basic goods. And she mentioned that if a person steals a loaf of bread or something to feed their family, then that’s permissible, or that’s forgivable, because this is a new experience for people and they don’t know what to do. They’re not being given resources by their government, they’re not being taken care of.

Republicans had a really strong reaction to that saying, it’s okay to steal? And that’s how they interpreted it. When Ted Yoho saw Ocasio-Cortez walking up the steps of the Capitol, and he’s walking down, he called her out on that. He said that she was disgusting, that she was a gendered slur, “an effing bitch.” He spoke both of those slurs, he didn’t abbreviate them. He said that she was crazy. And then he continued on. And I believe they saw each other later on, and she called him out on what he had said to her. It was heavily publicized because there was a reporter there named Mike Willis from The Hill and he immediately wrote about it. From there it spiraled through secondary reporting.

Q: This didn’t happen in a dark room where there’s no record of it. There’s a presumably objective reporter who is there at the time who says, this is not what should be happening. It’s a mix of personal and political. There’s this gendered slur that’s directed at Ocasio-Cortez, and there’s the larger ackground about poverty programs in the US. This is a personal attack about a political problem. Can you tell us more about that aspect?

Licata: Progressive politics is not new. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, they have very progressive and what the right would consider “radical” ideologies. But nobody speaks to them this way. This uptick of contempt from the right is really a response to the changing representation in Congress and in politics. When Obama won the presidency in 2008, there was such a strong reaction to his presence, because he is a Black American. And he’s not even what we would consider a very progressive politician. But US politics has historically been very white. Now you have these racialized women gaining powerful political positions. And so you see the reactions in right-wing media and right-wing politics.

Later on, Supreme Court nominee of Ketanji Brown  Jackson had a very different line of questioning than did Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The stance of right-wing politics is that we live in a post-racist, post-misogynistic world, so we can call people out and not be racist or misogynistic because those systemically don’t exist anymore — because look, a a Black or brown woman is an office. So of course, we’re not racist, we’re not misogynistic. It permits them to issue these kinds of gendered and racist attacks with some kind of safety net on their end.

Q: That speaks to the value of scholarship in this arena, which is somewhat outside of your training in Romance Languages and Literature. How did you decide to pursue this line of inquiry?

Licata: A lot of what I do is rooted in language perception and attitudinal experiments, and what sociolinguistics means in language education. Everything that I do is underpinned by standard language ideologies, and understanding how they permit or prohibit people from expressing themselves fully in public and private arenas. The public-private distinction is not that clear anymore in school or in a political arena. How are people able to express themselves without being discriminated against? All of my work is looking at how standard language ideologies operate, and how they racialize and marginalize groups. Going back to colonial epistemologies, and how they privilege some folks and erase others, has brought me into trying to deconstruct right-wing discourse, and who the targets of that discourse are.

Q: Following this episode, Ted Yoho issued an apology in Congress, and there was a lot of direction-changing in this apology. What were the ways that he was avoiding apologizing in making his apology? 

Licata: Right off the bat, he issued an apology for what he said, but how he said it. He’s really apologizing for tone: “I’m sorry, I was abrupt.” But then he conflates that abruptness with passion, and we can’t apologize for passion, because it’s just who we are, right? He is associating passion with his country, with family, and with God, which are very emotional topics for Americans, but especially Republicans. He’s creating political alignment and maintaining the distinction: “this is what I care about.” In that sense, he’s dividing his own values from AOC’s values, saying “this is what I care about, and this is why I had to do this.” It’s almost like it was his duty.

But after the first apology, he talks about this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm where systemic inequities don’t exist — where if you’re poor and you work hard, you’ll make it. He gives this personal anecdote with his wife. Those are valuable, emotional stories, and in the video, he becomes visibly emotional. He tears up and pauses, kind of deflecting. He’s making it a very personal story, because those emotional experiences will draw in people’s sympathies, depending on whose side you’re on and who you believe. He deflects to personal experience. And then he transcends and talks about bigger issues, like, “it’s my duty to serve America,” and takes the conversation to a national position. A lot of the speech is mostly distraction.

Q: I’m really interested in the tone question that you brought up. What tone is he apologizing for, and what tone is he using in the apology? Is he being emotional, or is it performance? How do we evaluate this political speech as both emotional and rational?

 Licata: When he says he wishes that it had gone down differently, does he? We don’t really know the intention. He offers various alternatives to how this could have played out, but he doesn’t apologize for calling her out. He doesn’t have to; people are allowed to have opinions. But he also wishes it had played out differently while denying that he said anything bad.

This House speech was an obligation. And he stated that in an interview right after this speech. He had a Hobson’s choice, which means he had to do it and deal with it, or he didn’t have to do it and still deal with it. It was a very short speech. It was a little more than a minute. And he even walked away from the podium before he finished speaking. He just said, “I yield back.” He’s already walking away. He seemed annoyed. When we talk about why people express emotion, we don’t really know the intention. It didn’t seem insincere. But we have to wonder why he teared up. Talking about family makes people emotional, but he just seemed annoyed, like, why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I on the spot? Nobody reported that he was emotional, because he’s a man, he’s allowed to be emotional. And women will be called out for it. The only reporting that came out of it was, “Oh, he apologized.” 

 Q: Was his apology successful? Who saw it as being a successful apology, and who didn’t? Did it fall along the neat political lines one would expect?

Licata: Definitely not. Immediately after Yoho spoke, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who’s a Democrat from Maryland, spoke in reaction. The politics are really similar on both sides in a way, where he talks about how we need to respect one another. And then he uses that to bring up Trump and talk about how Trump is disrespectful, but not really focusing on Yoho. He’s using that to align himself with Democrats and their lack of support for former President Trump. And then he states that this was an appropriate apology, and that Ocasio-Cortez would accept this apology. He speaks on her behalf without having spoken to her and accepts the apology on behalf of what seems to be Democrats. I found that to be very interesting, because there’s benefits to both men on both sides of the aisle not wanting to talk about this, not wanting to deal with gender dynamics and misogyny in politics. It’s not just Republicans who are avoiding those conversations, it’s also Democrats. We also see it with older women in politics not wanting to talk about it, because it’s a generational divide. So after Steny Hoyer affirmed it kind of snowballed into a bunch of reporting saying this was an apology. 

Q: Another interesting element of this apology, and maybe our modern media landscape generally, is the fact that you get to apologize many times now. After you give your apology in Congress, you go on a talk show and you give a sort of reiteration of the apology (or lack thereof). There’s a clip of Ted Yoho on “The Story with Martha McCallum,” which is a Fox News show. What does he do in recounting this event?

Licata: This is a nationally broadcast interview from after AOC issued her speech in the House. She spoke for 10 minutes, and she had a slew of people supporting her, which was heavily publicized. This interview was a response in part to that. Yoho is fairly consistent in how he recounts the story, but he is now here more explicitly replacing the gendered slur with something that can’t be directed at a person. To call someone an “F-word, B-word,” to quote McCallum, is what you call “animate.” It’s an animated slur. You don’t call an inanimate object “F-word, B-word,” but you can call an inanimate object “frickin’ BS.” And it’s unclear if he pronounced those words, but now he’s removing the offensiveness of the words, and saying that’s all he said, and then he walked away. So if he’s walking away, and the conversation ensues, who’s the antagonist now? It’s not him. He’s removing himself from any of the offenses.

It’s back to the personal versus the policy situation, where he says the problem is the situation, which is all “frickin’ BS,” rather than an individual person that he has ill feelings toward. On the same Martha McCallum show, they talk about what they think she is doing with the press coverage from this.

Q: This gets back to this question of gender and how there are expectations for how women should act, and that she is not conforming to this.

Licata: Part of the right wing reaction to AOC is that she’s very popular. She reaches a young and broad audience, and they don’t like that. She uses social media to her advantage. So any time she complains about something, they just gaslight, like, “Oh, she’s doing this to fundraise, she’s doing this just to make so-and-so upset.” To be called an “F-word B-word” in public is humiliating, especially in a professional environment. But again, because Yoho and his party exist in this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm, that’s not offensive.  They’re like, “I’m not misogynistic. I have daughters and a wife, so I can’t be misogynistic.” It’s a lot of gaslighting that this is actually really important, and if this exploding in popularity, that means there’s some ulterior motive like fundraising or gaining followers.

What we see with the current line of right-wing populism is that things have to be either/or. AOC could be hurt and offended, and what he did was wrong, and she can also fundraise off of it. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas or events. It’s not, “let’s do this so that we can make money,” but “hey, let’s have people understand why this is wrong.” And if that is used to fundraise, that’s politics.

These very severe lines are drawn between what is right and wrong, and you have to subscribe to one idea or the other. That’s really what right-wing populism is doing constantly is reiterating, who is part of us and who is part of them? Who’s a member of our in-group and who’s outside? When you’re in the out-group, everything you do is scrutinized. She was scrutinized from the moment he spoke on the steps, so everything that AOC does thereafter is going to be scrutinized and twisted into something negative or pejorative.

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