Steal this Idea

A story in the San Francisco Chronicle quotes “Emily Solomon, 45, a Washington, D.C., playwright and Pennsylvania native”:

[The news media] completely downplayed the first serious female candidacy. When she won New Hampshire, it wasn’t, ‘The first woman to win New Hampshire,’ it was ‘Clinton steals New Hampshire.’ Very subtle sexism, you know. And I’m not even a rabid feminist.

Okay, I am tired of this “very subtle sexism” thing. What Solomon is saying in this remark is that the only way people could have reported Clinton’s win in New Hampshire was by specifically pointing out that she was “the first woman to win New Hampshire.” Anything else, apparently, would be “sexism,” albeit ”very subtle sexism.” If Obama had won New Hampshire and no one reported it as “The first African-American to win New Hampshire,” would that have been racist? I doubt it. (So would that difference be racist, or sexist? Honestly, I don’t care. Nobody should. There are bigger fish to fry.)

Feminists can find sexism the way Salemites could find witches in 1692. Too often, it’s a bugaboo, reading a hobbyhorse into Rorschach-vague patterns.

Sexism or racism is attributing qualities to someone based only on irrelevant characteristics like sex, gender, or race. But what quality is attributed to Hillary Clinton by the headline “Clinton steals New Hampshire” that is based only on the irrelevant characteristic of sex or gender? The only possible candidate among those four words is “steals.” If that’s the source of the alleged sexism in those four words, then you have a major linguistic problem on your hands. You have to take that one word and read a whole truckload of communication into it. And it’s not even one of those charged words like “sweetie.”

But the only way anybody can ever read a whole truckload of communication into one word is to come to the communicative table with a whole truckload of baggage. So what baggage comes with “steals”?

First, you have a politician running for President, winning a primary election, perhaps unexpectedly. Journalists report it. They have to write short headline. They could say “wins,” but what if they want to convey a little more, such as that the win is unexpected? “Steals” would be a good candidate.

What other times do we use the word “steal”? In baseball, if you advance a base without a teammate getting a hit, while the pitcher is pitching, then you “steal” a base. If you are making a purchase and it’s an extraordinarily good deal, it’s “a steal.” If you sneak into a place, you “steal” in. If you take property unlawfully or by trick, you “steal.” There are a lot of meanings for the word steal.

In other words, when someone obtains something (a base, a good deal, presence, property) in an unexpected or impermissible way (without a hit, without paying a high price, without notice, without permission), then the word “steal” is appropriate.

So if there was any chance that Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire in an unexpected way, the to say that she “stole” it is entirely appropriate within the English language.

The next question is whether the only reason it may have been unexpected that she won New Hampshire was because she was a woman. If that was the only reason, then there may be an argument for “very subtle sexism.” Very subtle.

But I don’t think it was the only reason, or any reason. Just before the primary in New Hampshire, both Obama and Clinton were tied in the polls. It was still early in the primary season, before we all knew it would go on for months. Obama had just won the Iowa primary, after a lot of people had pretty much thought Clinton was the only viable Democratic candidate in 2008. It was an upset. Obama seemed like a dynamo. Then Clinton took New Hampshire. It was a steal. If Clinton had won Iowa and Obama had won New Hampsire, would that have been a steal? Absolutely.

In other words, if you are reporting on an early primary victory and you need to crank out a headline in the next three minutes, and you have only four words, and you want to convey that something unexpected just happened, what are you going to say? Why not use the word “steals”?

Sure, maybe the person who wrote the headline that Emily Solomon saw was in fact a sexist person who thought Hillary Clinton should not win because she is a woman. Maybe. But there is no good reason to make that assumption based solely on the content in the headline. It would just be a wild guess. Not even a thoughtful or an educated guess.

It frustrates me to no end that on the one hand there is legitimate mistreatment of and discrimination against women, but on the other hand there are people who seem to be more interested in denouncing perceived sexism. There are women being traded as sex slaves, women being beaten and verbally and mentally abused by husbands and boyfriends, women being passed over for promotions or fired from their jobs by people who are explicitly sexist, and all kinds of egregious things out there.

But still Emily Solomon complains about the word “steals,” which, in my opinion, in the context of her complaint, has only the remote possibility of actually being sexist. And that says nothing of the other implied message of her complaint, which is that the only way not to be sexist would be, oddly enough, with a headline that explicitly mentioned that Clinton is a woman. Huh?

People on the lookout for racism and sexism need to think more carefully before they speak. When you want to find racism or sexism, it’s easy to read things into people’s words and conduct that are not really there. Maybe a woman gets passed over for a promotion. It could be that her supervisor is sexist. Or it could be that she was not as well qualified as the person who did get the promotion. There are almost always potential alternative explanations for things. I’m not saying the alternative explanations are always right, but it seems rare that they are actually considered as real possibilities.

Instead, people on the hunt for sexism or racism immediately jump to the most inflammatory conclusion. That’s getting old. And every time I see it, it makes me more inclined to ignore these people who call themselves “feminists.” Yes, mistreatment and discrimination of women is a real problem that ought to be solved, just like the economy and health care are real political issues that need to be solved. But just as I have no respect for people who turn real politics into the game of politics, I am rapidly losing respect for people who turn real social equality into the game of call-out-and-condemn.

How about you try fixing problems, instead of just hurling epithets that end with -ist or -ism?

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