I am confused.
Apparently, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), in the course of a radio segment, told Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) that she should “act like a lady.”
And, apparently, this was insulting, demeaning, and degrading towards Bachmann and all women.
So, here’s the story, as related by The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room:
A radio debate between Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) on Thursday grew especially heated when the senator told the conservative congresswoman she ought to “act like a lady.”
As Bachmann finished describing tax policies she would ideally pursue in 2010, Specter began his response, criticizing the congresswoman for dodging the original question. That discussion became tense, as Bachmann continued to talk over Specter, prompting the Pennsylvania senator to charge: “Now wait a minute. I’ll stop and you can talk… I’ll treat you like a lady. So act like one.”
“I am a lady,” Bachmann replied.
The conversation continued, with the two prodding each other about “prosperity,” until Bachmann interrupted Specter once more.
And, once again, the Pennsylvania Democrat fired back his line: “Now wait a minute, don’t interrupt me. I didn’t interrupt you. Act like a lady.”
Bachmann replied in kind, noting, “I think I am a lady.” And Specter, sensing this line of attack was going nowhere, said: “I think you are too, that’s why I’m treating you like one.”
Now, before addressing the on-air exchange directly, I’d like to make a point regarding social etiquette. In a polite society, there are titles we afford one another. It is an exercise of formality, so as not to appear too familiar, which would be vulgar. For example, I address older adults with whom I am not close as “Sir” or “Ma’am”, like my mama taught me. These are titles we use when addressing someone in particular. To address someone more generally, in Anglo-American culture, we use the terms “lady” and “gentleman”. As in, “The gentleman across the room is wearing a finely cut waistcoat,” or, “Would the lady care to accompany me to the Auxiliary Ball Friday evening?”
Okay, so maybe titles are a little archaic, particularly considering the ultra-casual, insta-friendly culture we find ourselves in nowadays. But I, for one, appreciate the formality. I absolutely hate, for instance, when political candidates address each other by first name in debate. No, Governor Palin, you may not call me Joe.
Particularly in politics, it is necessary to maintain a level of etiquette and decorum in order to ensure that debates never get too personal. In fact, the United States Congress has rules to that effect, explained so eloquently one day by no less than Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), perhaps the greatest living authority on the history and customs of the Senate, who rose one day to express his displeasure at the particularly vicious tone of debate:
Let Senators be aware that we Senators must, and should, address one another in the third person. And the reason for this: it minimizes the chances of having on display bad tempers. Are Senators aware that Senators should address one another not in the second person, but rather in the third person? Is the Senator from Timbuktu aware of that rule? Is the Senator from West Virginia aware of the rule? Yes. The Senator from West Virginia, Mr. President, will take his seat.
But I digress.
The point is, we have, as a culture, standards of behavior to which we hold ourselves and others. These standards are based on a general understanding of politeness and good taste. And, when we refer to people who uphold those standards, we do so with particular labels — ladies and gentlemen. To be called a lady or a gentleman, is to be recognized, in a way, for exhibiting a proper social manner. To be exhorted to “act” like a lady or gentleman is to be called out for your rudeness, coarseness, or otherwise reprehensible behavior, with the implicit request to make the necessary changes in your behavior at once.
I say all this to point out that, if Rep. Bachmann was behaving rudely, there is absolutely nothing untoward about Sen. Specter’s remarks. Now, whether or not her behavior was actually rude could possibly be debated. But if she was in fact speaking over the Senator, then she was behaving no better than a common television pundit, and I, for one, expect better of my country’s elected representatives.
But the question has to be asked: if the situation had been reversed, and Sen. Specter had interrupted and spoken over Rep. Bachmann, would anyone have batted an eye if she had responded, “I’ll treat you like a gentleman, so act like one”? I sincerely doubt it. And why? Perhaps because it is acceptable for a woman to call out a man on his inappropriate behavior but not the other way around. Or, rather, perhaps it is that “lady” is simply too fraught a word to be used, even when properly done so. But then, how should the Senator have expressed his dissatisfaction with her manner? If he had simply said, “Quit being rude,” would this never have been an issue? Or would certain parts of our population, always so eager to get offended, be incensed that he actually had the nerve to point out that her behavior is, both in that particular interview and as a politician in general, completely unacceptable? Or, even further, is rudeness of Bachmann’s variety simply to be tolerated now, without any resistance or comeuppance? I certainly hope not.