The Common Good

Sotomayor's 'Temperament Problem': Perception and Reality

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's approval as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice may be a forgone conclusion at this point, but her nomination hearings last week raised important questions related to diversity that merit ongoing examination.

If you do very much work on issues of diversity, the questions of perception versus reality are bound to come up. Often, it's in a defensive context: My action may have been perceived as racist, but the "reality" is that there was a reason for it that has nothing to do with race. (But were you concerned, or even aware, of how your actions could have been perceived by people who are important to you?) Or, it sometimes relates to the flawed perceptions of members of the dominant culture. Perception: "Yes, our church is very diverse." Reality: Only a few people of color attend who generally feel out of place in what they experience as a culturally "white" congregation.

Since this post is about Sotomayor, you may already be thinking about her "wise Latina" comments. But that's really more of a case of perception versus intention -- the difference between what I said and what you heard. Or, the difference between what I meant to say and what you wanted to hear. The dynamic is similar and worth exploring, but I think Jim Wallis took on the "perspective" issue beautifully in his post last week.

No, what fired me up last week has less to do with perceptions regarding Sotomayor's ethnicity and more to do with her gender. Observe this line of questioning by Senator Lindsay Graham:

... lawyers anonymously rate judges in terms of temperament, and here's what they said about you: "She's a terror on the bench." "She's temperamental, excitable." "She seems angry." "She's overly aggressive, not very judicial." "She does not have a very good temperament." "She abuses lawyers." "She really lacks judicial temperament." "She believes in an out-of-control -- she behaves in an out-of-control manner." "She makes inappropriate outbursts." "She is nasty to lawyers." "She'll attack lawyers for making an argument she does not like." "She can be a bit of a bully."
...
I never liked appearing before a judge that I thought was a bully. It's hard enough being a lawyer, having your client there to begin with, without the judge just beating you up for no good reason. Do you think you have a temperament problem?

Thank God for NPR to slap some reality down on that perception:

Judge Guido Calabresi, former Yale Law School dean and Sotomayor's mentor, now says that when Sotomayor first joined the Court of Appeals, he began hearing rumors that she was overly aggressive, and he started keeping track, comparing the substance and tone of her questions with those of his male colleagues and his own questions.

"And I must say I found no difference at all. So I concluded that all that was going on was that there were some male lawyers who couldn't stand being questioned toughly by a woman," Calabresi says. "It was sexism in its most obvious form."

And what if such criticism came from a woman lawyer? Well, says Calabresi, women can be just as sexist as men in their expectations of how a woman judge should act.

Sen. Graham's questions and Calabresi's observations immediately brought to mind linguist Deborah Tannen's Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. The book studies the differences in communication habits and expectations between men and women. If you're a man or woman who sometimes talks to members of the opposite gender at work, I recommend it.

One of Tannen's key observations, grossly oversimplified: If women talk like women, they're ignored. If women talk like men, they're hated. Tannen goes to great pains to qualify such generalizations. Obviously, there's not just one way that women or men talk -- or react. She also provides numerous studies and research that demonstrate how pervasive such trends are, but here's one key passage that summarizes her findings and conveniently links them to a political context:

Before the 1992 national election, there were two women in the United States Senate: Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. Senator Mikulski is frequently called "tough" becuase of her hard-hitting style (a style that would be unremarkable, and probably unremarked, in a male senator). Senator Kassebaum has a style closer to that expected of women, one that would be characterized as "a soft touch." Each became an object lesson for the other. "You should be more like Barbara," their colleagues told Senator Kassebaum, encouraging her to be firmer and more assertive. "You should be more like Nancy," they told Mikulski, encouraging her to soften her approach. This complementary and conflicting advice dramatizes the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't double bind that women in authority confront. As more and more women, each with her own unique style, take their seats in the Senate and in other positions of authority, we can hope that each woman will be free to be more like herself.

Add the Supreme Court to that list.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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