Monday, October 17, 2011

Tone matters too

A few weeks ago when my Facebook wall was papered by my many liberal friends with Elizabeth Warren's "pay forward" exegesis on perceived inequities in the tax code, it didn't occur to me to wonder why the preferred method of disseminating the quote was via written transcription rather than a link or embed of the actual video.  The nearby graphic is the version I saw most frequently - on Facebook and elsewhere.  It is drawn from this page, captioned "the Elizabeth Warren quote every American needs to see."

Look at that accompanying photo. Professor Warren is smiling amiably, eyes bright, forehead pleasantly un-furrowed.  Her hand is open in a non-aggressive, 'come and reason with me' gesture.  She looks friendly and reasonable. 

Despite all of the reading and thinking I did about that extended quote last month, it didn't occur to me until very recently that I'd never bothered to seek out and view the widely-available YouTube video of the Professor's actual delivery of those telling words.  Like many people, I suspect, I subconsciously imposed on the speech a calm and rational tone lifted from the accompanying photograph.

The reality is quite different.  If, like me, you hadn't previous bothered, take a moment to watch for yourself:

That friendly smile?  Nowhere in evidence, buried 'neath a scowl.  The welcoming hand?  Replaced by a pointed, stabbing finger, and by big, violent gesticulations.  Professor Warren's tone in the video is that of a hectoring lecturer from on high - someone who knows better than you, delivering a verbal tongue-lashing to the hypothetical factory-owning straw man she's erected to absorb her class warfare-inducing reprimand.

A tip of the hat is due to the operative who recognized the political value of divorcing Professor Warren's words from the tone in which they were spoken.  That graphic is a subtle bit of genius.

Now of course I realize that just as in my initial read I imposed upon Professor Warren's words a tone unconsciously derived from the accompanying photo, my impressions upon viewing the video are colored by my own predispositions toward the candidate and my well-percolated opinions about the message she's delivering.  I realize that the very same words, spoken in the very same tone, strike other ears as a passionate declaration of fundamental political truths.  But if I close my eyes and listen just to the audio, and I try to picture the facial expressions that accompany the tone, I see only what in fact appeared on the Professor's face as she spoke.  The scowl.  The frown.  I can almost feel the breeze from those waving hands.

In its initial iteration Professor Warren's diatribe was less a calm, reasoned expression of progressive first principles than a strident call to arms to the most radical elements of the left; the people motivating the groups of kids who are now spending most of their time camping out in our city centers, scribbling gripes on scraps of torn cardboard.  Insofar as a coherent message can be gleaned from those "Occupy ______" protests, it is of a piece with Professor Warren's "pay forward" speech - and expressed in a similar tone.

To the extent that this is the tone the Warren campaign intends to bring to her campaign for Senate, it could not contrast more starkly with the friendly, non-ideological equanimity of the man she is hoping to replace.  Though it might energize the base (as clearly it already has), I don't expect that contrast will serve her well with the broader electorate, including the Commonwealth's majority of moderate unenrolled voters who were key to Senator Brown's win the first time around. That's why for all of the mileage she's gotten off of the viral video, I suspect we won't see that speech in any of her campaign ads.  Political junkies watch candidate YouTube videos.  Mainstream voters watch TV.


  1. Hello Dan,
    Thanks for that analysis. I also wrote something on this here: in a similar vein. I find, in particular, that her emphasis is all screwed up and that she comes off as a phony.
    Mike Stopa

  2. Thanks Mike! Great minds?
    I do wonder if she's faking the populism stuff, in whole or in part. Can't decide whether it would be better or worse if she doesn't really believe her own rhetoric.

  3. Totally silly comments. Her tone is great! You are really going into overdrive to find a way to criticize her. Why don't you just admit that you don't like what she said, because it's true.

  4. What she said was false, Anonymous. She makes it sound like corporations pay no taxes at all to help build those roads or contribute to society. Fed & State corporate taxes, RE taxes, sales taxes, regulatory licenses & "fees", etc. That doesn't include the owners, shareholders and employees that pay income, sales and capital gains taxes. Warren is in her own words, "an elitist hick."

  5. Well Anonymous, I did admit that I don't like what she said - and that my dislike for the content might color my impression of the tone. That will be true of a lot of people (which is why, again, I doubt you'll see that footage anywhere other than the internet). But I do truly hope the Warren campaign shares your impression and acts on it. Thanks for commenting.


No spamming, flaming, cursing, or other such nonsense tolerated. Thanks for engaging on those terms - Greg