One Woman’s Impassioned Speech To Bring Down The Flag

Jenny Horne, a Republican member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, received national attention for a four-minute speech she delivered last week imploring her colleagues to take down the Confederate Flag at her State House. As a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, she was the perfect person to deliver her remarks, as her background made her particularly credible on the issue (note: her ancestry claim has recently been called into question).

Her speech was almost universally well reviewed. USA Today called it “stirring.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution credited her speech with helping to bring down the flag. And The Washington Post wrote:

“The 42-year-old lawyer from Summerville stepped up to the podium and delivered words so raw and impassioned they would immediately go viral on the Internet. More important, her four-minute speech would alter the course of the debate, and with it, South Carolina history.”

With praise from so many corners, I was sure I’d love her speech. But when I finally watched it, I was surprised to find that I didn’t.

First, if the purpose of a speech is to deliver on its call to action, then Ms. Horne hit a home run. If it worked to achieve her goal, then it worked.

And yet…as a speech coach, I felt that she came across as too angry.

Anger is a tricky thing, in that it can benefit speakers in certain situations. In this case, Ms. Horne was discussing an issue that she (and many others) regarded as a grave injustice. Her anger seemed justified, particularly because she was still grieving the loss of her colleague, Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine people murdered during a church service.

But too much anger can draw attention to itself and distract focus from the underlying issue. Plus, in many speech settings, such a tone doesn’t leave much room for people on the other side of the debate to walk easily to the speaker’s position. If anything, such a harangue usually makes the people under attack cling to their deeply held views even more strongly than before. I believe Horne could have achieved the same result by appealing to conscience in a less accusatory manner—but again, the result speaks for itself.

Denise Graveline, who writes the Eloquent Woman website, wrote favorably about the speech but agreed that Horne came across as “angry.” But she also offered an important caution:

Much of the coverage of Horne’s speech emphasized that it was “emotional,” as women’s speeches are often described. Yes, her voice cracked and rose higher. She shook with rage, and she clearly came to tears as she spoke. But why not call it by the precise emotion? Angry, frustrated, fed up would have been my adjectives.

Jenny Horne
That’s an important point, and for that reason, I thought long and hard before hitting “publish” about whether my reaction was based, in part, on any unconscious biases about gender. I don’t think it was, but the thing about unconscious bias is that you never know the answer to that for sure.

To test that, I went back and looked at an article I posted in 2010 called “Angry Media Guests.” In it, I wrote:

“If you are a public official or spokesperson speaking on behalf a group that has experienced a grave injustice, the public may forgive your anger – as long as it’s controlled, purposeful and directed. But again, the threshold here is high – a spokesperson from an international aid organization decrying the world’s indifference to an African nation’s genocide may be forgiven. But a little anger goes a long way – too much, and the public will tune out.”

In my judgment, her anger was purposeful and directed – but not fully controlled. In any case, my impression of Ms. Horne’s speech appears to be out of sync with much of the national reaction to it. Therefore, I’m curious what you think.
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