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.
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.
Thank you for this, Brad, and for wondering if your response is swayed by the notion we have in our society that women are “too emotional.”
For the context of her speech, her tone and delivery made perfect sense to me. How frustrating it must have been to listen to the counter-arguments all day long. Her impassioned plea, her call to do the right thing in the face of an unspeakable tragedy, broke through and helped to win the day.
For that context, was being “fully controlled” important? And, what makes you think she wasn’t? Did she break down in uncontrollable sobs? Did she say anything she didn’t mean? Did she resort to ad hominem attacks of her colleagues? Did she take off a shoe and pound it on the podium? (I’m guessing that you aren’t old enough to remember Khrushchev doing that.)
What she did and the way she did it seemed to me to be fully human, authentic, and brave.
She had to know, before she stood to speak, that her voice might shake, or rise, or otherwise betray her strong feelings. I’m guessing that she thought twice about exposing herself to the charge that she was “too emotional.”
She’s brave because, being fully aware that she would be judged by some for not speaking in a perfectly modulated tone, she did it anyway. She risked personal ridicule and gender-based stereotyping because that was unimportant to her in comparison to the issue at hand.
I’d give her a medal (or at least a lapel pin) for putting her convictions and her desire to see the right thing done ahead of any fears about her personal image.
Thank you very much for your comment.
First, to clarify, the comments in my post about her voice shaking or rising weren’t mine — I quoted someone else on the topic. I don’t and didn’t object to any of those things.
That said I agree with much of what you wrote. But I’ll focus on the specific point about anger. I don’t believe someone has to break down into uncontrollable sobs or say something off message to convey anger. The clip I linked to from 2010 of a male guest on a financial news program, while not perfectly analogous to Ms. Horne’s video clip, also conveyed more anger than I thought useful for the moment.
My main concern is the point I made about anger too often repelling people instead of attracting them. As I said in this post, it clearly worked for her — the result speaks for itself — but I stand by the notion that anger that boils over can be unproductive.
Regarding gender, I wrestled with one question when writing this post. Women are much too frequently accused of being too “emotional” when speaking (and I didn’t accuse her of being such in my post). That’s an unfair and harmful gender stereotype that I never want to inadvertently propagate. But does that mean that the word “anger” can only be confined to male speakers when writing a piece about public speaking? I don’t think so. Here’s where I come out: the word “anger” is fine to use for either gender — as long as it’s applied equally and consistently. I’m comfortable that I did so in this case. The question of whether or not the term applies to Ms. Horne in this speech, however, is much more debatable. It’s subjective, and as I suggested in the piece, I know most people disagree with me on this.
Thank you for the push back. This is one of those posts I really lingered over, but knew I reacted badly to parts of her speech and thought I’d put it out there for discussion.
This topic can be fairly fraught, and I’m glad you are looking at it. That takes courage, too. Getting anywhere near talking about gender stereotypes can be difficult. And trying to discuss them in comments can lead to misunderstandings. I’m fairly certain that we’d agree about much if we were having a cup of coffee. Not that you’d be persuaded to love the speech. I’m not sure I love the speech. I just love that she gave it.
Thanks again. I share your view that we’d probably agree on most of these points if we were discussing them over a cup of coffee!
These types of posts scare me, because I know how easy it would be for someone to conclude that I’m biased and perpetuating ugly stereotypes. But discussing these types of issues in a frank manner is more important to me than the potential risks, especially when people provide a smart counterpoint, like yours.
If her speech led to the flag coming down, I’m glad she gave that speech, too.
Thank you, Jeanne.
By the way, you mentioned a few days ago that our email sign-up pop-up is coming up too frequently, even after you dismiss it. I wanted you, and all readers, to know that we’re fixing that, and hope to have a properly working version live by the beginning of next week.
Ultimately, what it will be judged by is her position on whatever she was talking about. I think anger and offense are aligned closely and, in this case, I don’t think what she was saying would cause great offense, so I don’t think people will see her as angry. If she were taking the opposite opinion and arguing for keeping the flag, I think you’d see some people label it an angry speech or whatever.
And it’s okay to call her emotional, because she was. You can’t separate her speech from its emotion. You probably wouldn’t have ever heard of her speech but for its emotion, for that matter. If people want to accuse you of perpetuating a stereotype for calling a spade a spade, let that be their small-minded problem.
Brad, I don’t often disagree with you but I do on this. Yes, she was impassioned, and angry. So what? Why is this a problem? She needed to get to the heart of the issue, she needed to convince people to act quickly, and the way to do it was to speak authentically. And the bottom line is that her speech was effective. The flag came down on Friday.
I got the sense that the media spotlighted her speech specifically because she said she was a descendant of Jefferson Davis. We didn’t hear the rest of the speeches, and I would bet that there were others who were equally impassioned and angry (but I don’t know).
Still, glad you posted about it.
Thanks for your comment. I knew people would disagree with me on this one. I don’t mind impassioned and angry — but I do mind too much anger. That’s a very subjective line that she crossed for me, but apparently not for most others.
And your disagreement is a good thing! As the expression says, if two people agree on everything, one of them isn’t thinking. 🙂
Thanks, as always, for reading.
I thought it crossed a line of being a bit uncontrolled. HOWEVER….given the context – it’s 3 am, she had been listening to gasbags obfuscate on the issue and throwing wrenches into the process to try to delay the vote, a dear friend had just been slaughtered while he was praying – I felt her going overboard was understandable. She was fed up. She had had enough. She spoke without notes, without much preparation, and spoke from the heart. So, there was latitude, here, to cross that line that would not have been as understandable and perhaps not as acceptable in a difference situation.
I read some background about her. The reason why many people in the room listened to her is that she rarely speaks in the legislature, but when she does speak, people felt that she almost always contributes to the process. That, the respect her colleagues have for her, along with her speech, swayed the vote. The speech alone might not have gotten the issue to the finish line.
Always love to read your posts! Maura Casey