Race, Gender, and Political Speech: An Interview with Gabriella Licata

Gabriella Licata

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was insulted on the Capitol steps in July 2020, it was a brief media sensation. But what does being called an “effing bitch” mean for how we think about political speech? 

Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, joined Julia Sizek for this episode of the Matrix Podcast to discuss how the standard language ideologies of political speech come to shape perceptions of language and people in Congress. Licata utilizes mixed methodologies to assess language behavior and linguistic bias in sociolinguistic experiments, social media, and political discourse.

The interview focuses largely on Licata’s recently published paper in the Journal of Language and Discrimination, “Sorry, not sorry: Ted Yoho’s infelicitous apology as reification of toxic masculinity,” which analyzes the aftermath of an insult on the Capitol steps and what it reveals about the norms of American political speech.

Excerpts from the interview are included below (edited for length and content). A full, unedited transcript is available here.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast, coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, a recording partner on Berkeley’s campus. I’m Julia Sizek, your host.

Today, our guest is Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Language and Literatures who has a designated emphasis in gender, women and sexuality. Her research investigates how standard language ideologies influence perceptions of language and people. And she recently published a paper about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and right wing political speech. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Gabriella Licata: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sizek: So let’s just jump in by discussing the event that your paper is about, which is when Ted Yoho insulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol on July 20, 2020. What happened and who witnessed the event?

Licata: Sure, so this was highly publicized at the moment, and it hasn’t been spoken of much since then. But basically a little backstory is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had participated in a virtual town hall, I believe, in her district, in her New York district.

And she had mentioned that people are suffering. Due to the effects of the pandemic there’s a lot of newfound urgent poverty issues that aren’t being addressed. People don’t have food. People don’t have their basic goods.

And she mentioned that if a person steals a loaf of bread or something like that to feed their family, then that’s permissible or that’s forgivable because this is a new experience for people and they don’t know what to do. They’re not being given resources by their government. They’re not being taken care of.

And Republicans had a really strong reaction to that, saying it’s OK to steal. And that’s how they interpreted it. And so when Ted Yoho saw Ocasio-Cortez walking up the steps of the Capitol and he’s walking down, he called her out on that. And he said that she was disgusting, that she was a gendered slur, an effing bitch. And he said he spoke both of those slurs. He didn’t abbreviate them.

And he said that she was crazy and then continued on. And I believe they saw each other later on and she called him out on what he had said to her and said we’re going to talk about this later.

And then it turned– and then it was heavily publicized because there was a Hill reporter there named Mike Lillis from the, yeah, from The Hill and he immediately wrote about it. And from there it just spiraled into a secondary reporting.

Sizek: Yeah and obviously, one of the big pieces about this isn’t something that’s happening in a dark room where there’s no record of it. There’s a presumably objective reporter who is there at the same time and says, hey, this is not what should be happening.

And I guess in tandem with that is you can see in the backstory you’re telling that it’s a real mix of the personal and the political. There’s both this gendered slur that’s directly, I guess, directed at Ocasio-Cortez. And then there’s also this political aspect of this larger background about poverty programs in the US.

And I guess one of the things that seems really troubling about this is that it is a personal attack that is about a political problem. Can you tell us a little more about that aspect of this?

Licata: Sure, I mean, we– progressive politics is not new. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, they have very progressive and what the right would consider radical ideologies, but nobody speaks to them this way. So this uptick of progressive hate and contempt from the right is really a response to the changing representation in congress, in politics.

So when Obama won the presidency in 2008, there was such a strong reaction to his presence because he was Black. He’s a Black American and he’s not even that progressive. He’s not what we would consider a very progressive politician. But because we have a Black man in power there’s these shifting dynamics in a really white world.

So US politics is traditionally very white, historically very white. And you have all these now racialized women gaining office, very powerful political positions. And so you’re seeing the reactions in right-wing media, in right-wing politics.

And we can talk about this a little bit later with the Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, where you have a very different line of questioning for her than you do Justice Brett Kavanaugh. So we can talk about that in a bit.

Yeah, but right-wing politics is really operating. It’s epistemology, its stance is that we live in a post-racist, post-misogynistic world.

So we can call people out and not be racist. We can call people out and not be misogynistic because those systemically don’t exist anymore because, look, a Brown woman is in office, a Black woman is in office. So of course, we’re not racist. We’re not misogynistic. So it allows, it permits them to issue these gendered and racist attacks with some safety net on their end.

Sizek: Yeah, I think this really points out to some of the broader implications of this research and also the value of scholarship in this arena, which is somewhat outside of your training, in Romance Languages and Literatures. So can you just tell us a little bit about why you decided to pursue this line of inquiry?

Licata: Sure, so although a lot of what I do is rooted in language perception, so attitudinal experiments, and also looking at linguistics and what sociolinguistics means in education and language education, everything that I do is really undergirded by or underpinned by standard language ideologies and understanding how they permit or prohibit people from expressing themselves fully in public and private arenas. And the public, private distinction is not that clear anymore.

But in school or in a political arena, how are people able to express themselves without being discriminated against? And so all of my work is really looking at how standard language ideologies operate and how they racialize and how they marginalize groups.

So I think that understanding that going back to colonial epistemologies and how they’ve created these divisions in our society and where they privilege some folks and they erase others, that’s really what has brought me into understanding or to trying to deconstruct right-wing discourse and who are the targets of that discourse.

Sizek: Yeah, so I guess with that, let’s turn towards a specific example and really look at what Ted Yoho does after this well-documented case of him using slurs because he has an apology that he gives shortly thereafter in Congress. Let’s listen to his apology.

[Ted Yoho]: Mr. Speaker, I stand before you this morning to address the strife I injected into the already contentious Congress. I have worked with many members in this chamber over the past four terms, members on both sides of the aisle. And each of you know that I’m a man of my word.

So let me take a moment to address this body. I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York. It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America, but that does not mean we should be disrespectful.

Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. The offensive name calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues. And if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.

As my colleagues know, I’m passionate about those affected by poverty. My wife, Carolyn, and I started out together at the age of 19 with nothing. We did odd jobs and we were on food stamps. I know the face of poverty and for a time it was mine. That is why I know people in this country can still with all its faults rise up and succeed and not be encouraged to break the law.

I will commit to each of you that I will conduct myself from a place of passion and understanding that policy and political disagreement be vigorously debated with the knowledge that we approach the problems facing our nation with the betterment of the country in mind and the people we serve. I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country. I yield back.


Sizek: All right, so that’s the whole apology. I guess one thing that’s immediately noticeable is that there’s a lot of direction changing in this apology. So can you walk us through what’s happening and the different ways that he is avoiding apologizing in making his apology?

Licata: Sure, so right off the bat, he issues an apology and not for what he said, but how he said it. So he’s really apologizing for tone. I’m sorry I was abrupt. I mean, if we skip to the very end he conflates that abruptness with passion and we can’t apologize for passion because it’s just who we are.

And he is associating passion with his country, with family, with God and those are very, emotional topics for Americans, but especially Republicans. He’s creating his political alignment and maintaining that distinction of this is what I care about.

And in that sense, he’s then dividing his own values from AOC’s values and saying like, this is what I care about and this is why I had to do this. So it’s almost like he was sent to do this or he it was his duty.

But after the first apology or whatever you want to call it, he talks about how– again, coming from this really post-racist, post-misogynistic realm where systemic inequities don’t exist. So if you’re poor and you work hard, you’ll make it. So he gives his personal anecdote with his wife and those are valuable stories and they’re emotional stories.

In the video, he becomes visibly emotional and tears up and pauses, which is something we can also talk about. But he’s deflecting and making it a very personal story because those emotional experiences will draw people in and bring and draw in their sympathies.

Depending on whose side you’re on or who you believe, that will make you emotional and that will– that’s called to people. So he deflects to personal experience. And then he also talks– he transcends and talks about bigger issues like we’re here to work.

We have this and that going on. And it’s my duty to serve America. And takes the conversation to a global national position, which is just distracting. So a lot of the speeches mostly distraction.

Sizek: Yeah, it’s really interesting because you point to two different scales of distraction. One, where he turns to his own personal experience, a really micro-level to his own emotional experience of living off of food stamps with his wife and then in a very Republican way, pulling himself up on his bootstraps and making it into Congress later.

And then on the other side, this turn towards family values. And I believe that my programs were addressing the pandemic are better than these sorts of other programs. And so both this scalar way that he’s avoiding it. But he’s I guess– I’m really interested in this tone question that you brought up. This question of, what tone is he using? What tone is he apologizing for? And what tone is he using in the apology?

This also gets to this question of, is he being emotional or is it performance? How do we evaluate his political speech as both an emotional speech and as a rational speech?

Licata: Right, yeah. So I think when he’s apologizing– and he does this in later interviews where he wishes that it had just gone down differently. And it’s like, does he– we don’t really know the intention. He offers various alternatives to how this could have played out, but he doesn’t apologize for calling her out, which, I mean, he doesn’t have to. People are allowed to have opinions.

But he also wishes it had played out differently while denying that he said anything bad. OK, so I think and this the house speech was an obligation. And he states that in an interview. I believe right after this house speech he said he had a Hobson’s choice, which means he had to do it and deal with it or he didn’t have to do it. And still deal with it.

So he didn’t– it was a very short speech. It was a little bit more than a minute. And he even walked off, walked away from the podium before he finished speaking. So as he said, I yield back. He’s already walking away. And it didn’t seem– he seemed annoyed.

And I think that when we talk about emotion and why people express emotion, it seemed– I mean, I don’t– we don’t really know the intention. It didn’t seem insincere, but we have to wonder why he teared up. I mean, talking about family makes people emotional, talking about past experiences.

But also just I think he seemed annoyed and like, why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I on the spot? And so I think that– and nobody reported that he was emotional because he’s a man. He’s allowed to be emotional and women will be called out for it. But the only reporting that came out of it was, oh, he apologized.

Sizek: Yeah, which also I guess this gets us to the question of like, was his apology successful? Who saw it as being a successful apology? Who didn’t? And did they fall along the neat or relatively neat political lines that one would expect?

Licata: Definitely not. So immediately after Yoho spoke, House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, who’s a Democrat from Maryland, spoken reaction and he did really– I mean, again, the politics are really similar on both sides in a way where he talks about how we need to respect one another.

And then he uses that to bring up Trump and talk about how Trump is disrespectful, but not really focusing on Yoho. So he is using that to then align himself with democrats and their lack of support for former President Trump.

And then he states that this is an appropriate apology and that Ocasio-Cortez would accept this apology. Speaks on her behalf without having spoken to her and accepts the apology on behalf of what seems to be Democrats.

I found that to be very interesting because there’s benefits to both men that are on both sides of the aisle not wanting to talk about this, not wanting to deal with gender dynamics and misogyny and politics.

It’s not just Republicans who are avoiding those conversations, it’s also Democrats and I mean, anyone, but also this– we see it with older women too in politics not wanting to really talk about it because it’s also a generational divide aside from political. Yeah, so Steny Hoyer then affirming the apology then snowballs into a bunch of reporting saying that this was an apology.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that it’s interesting because it raises this question of more of, I guess, the side of how people’s identities affect whether or not they’re willing to accept the apology rather than aligning it along political lines. But one thing I think that is another interesting element of this apology and maybe our modern media landscape more generally is the fact that you get to apologize many times now.

After you give your apology in congress, you go in on your talk show and you give your own reiteration of your apology or lack thereof. So I thought that maybe we could use this opportunity to listen to how Yoho recounts the event after it happened and redoes his apology.


[MARTHA MCCALLUM, REPORTER]: But these stories are so totally different that the two of you are telling. So it’s hard to know which version is the truth. But when you turned around and walked down the stairs, did you refer to her as a F-word B-word?

[TED YOHO]: No, I walked down the steps and I said, this is just such freaking BS and that’s all I said. And then a reporter came up to me and said, what was that about? I said, no comment. Did you say this? I said, no comment and I left.


Sizek: Yeah, so that was Ted Yoho on the story with Martha MacCallum, which is a Fox News show. What does he do in recounting this event?

Licata: Sure, so in recounting this event, he– so mind you, this is a nationally broadcast interview. And this is after AOC issued her speech in the House. And she had a slew of people supporting her speaking for two to five minutes after, which that was heavily publicized.

And so this interview is a response in part to that. And now having to address his reputation after AOC recounts the story in her own words. And she spoke for 10 minutes. And so what he’s doing here is, again– I mean, he’s fairly consistent in how he recounts the story, but he is now here more explicitly replacing the gendered slur with something that can’t be directed at a person.

So to call someone an F-word, B-word, to quote MacCallum, is what you call– is inanimate. It’s an animated slur. So you can’t call an inanimate object an F-word B-word. But you can call an inanimate object freaking BS. And it’s unclear if he pronounced those words, but now he’s removing the offensiveness of the words.

And he’s also basically saying that’s all he said and then he walked away. And so if he’s walking away and the conversation ensues, then who’s the antagonist now? It’s not him. So he’s removing himself a bit from any of the offenses.

Sizek: Yeah, so we see it’s back to this question of the personal versus the policy situation where he says actually the problem is the situation, which is all freaking BS, rather than an individual person who I have ill feelings toward perhaps.

And some of these ill feelings actually turn up in some, I guess, accusations that get made against Ocasio-Cortez after the event. So let’s listen to a clip from this same Martha MacCallum show about what they think she is doing with the press coverage from this.


[TED YOHO]: I guess you see what’s going on now is she’s making hay out of this. She’s fundraising off of this. She’s out in front of the Capitol wearing her COVID mask, playing that song, “Boss,” I’m not going to say it. Playing “Boss” so-and-so, making fun of this, but yet she’s on the floor crying, saying how bad this is, but yet she’s out there saying the same thing. And it’s disingenuous.


Sizek: Yeah, so I think this also gets us back to this question of gender and how there are expectations for how women should act and that she is not conforming to this, right?

Licata: Right. I mean, part of the right-wing reaction to AOC is that she’s very popular and she reaches a young and broad audience and they don’t like that. So she uses social media to her advantage. So any time that she complains about something, they just gaslight like she’s doing this to fundraise, she’s doing this just to make so-and-so upset.

To be called an F-word, B-word in public is humiliating, especially in a professional environment. But again, because they don’t think– because Yoho and his party alignment exist in this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm, that’s not offensive.

I’m not misogynistic. I have daughters and a wife. So I can’t be misogynistic. Again, it’s a lot of gaslighting that this isn’t actually really important. So if this is exploding, then it means there’s some ulterior motive that she has for fundraising or to gain popularity or to get followers.

Sizek: Yeah, so the idea is that she is making money off of this event and therefore, that her feelings would not be legitimate or that it wouldn’t be inappropriate for him to say something to her like that.

Licata: Right, and I think what we see with populism, and particularly the line of right-wing populism right now, is that things have to be either or so. Sure, AOC could be hurt and could be offended and what he did was wrong and she can also fundraise off of it. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas or events.

And it’s not so much like, hey, let’s make this intentional so we can– let’s do this so that we can make money, but hey, like, let’s have people understand why this is wrong. And if that is used to fundraise, I mean, that’s politics.

But these very severe lines are drawn between like, what is right and wrong and that you can’t– you have to ascribe to one idea or the other. And that’s really what right-wing populism is doing constantly, is reiterating who is part of us and who is part of them. So who’s a member of our in-group and who’s outside?

And so when you’re on the outside, when you’re in the outgroup, everything you do is scrutinized. So it doesn’t matter. I mean, she was scrutinized from the moment he spoke on the steps. So everything that she does, everything that AOC does there thereafter is going to be scrutinized and twisted into something negative or pejorative.

Yeah, and what’s interesting, too, is that Ted Yoho really tries to deflect this scrutiny from him. So I guess let’s listen to our last clip from this Martha MacCallum show where he talks about how he has worked with many people and that he is not saying this slur against Ocasio-Cortez because she’s a woman or because she’s a woman of color.


[NEWS REPORTER]: Just touched on. Because you said, I have had similar conversations with other people about policy. Now, did you get heated in those conversations? Might any of those people have thought that you were out of line and your language with them? And were those people men and were those people women? Did they cross the gender line?

[TED YOHO]: Sure, I’ve had conversations with [INAUDIBLE], Terry Sewell, Luis Gutierrez on several things. And we don’t always walk away agreeing, but we always wind up, it seems like afterwards laughing about things. And we’re going to disagree on that, but we’re always amicable. I’m there to solve problems. We’ve got so many problems in this country.

[NEWS REPORTER]: Here’s part of her speech, which got a lot of attention. Let’s play that because I want to get you to react to this.

[TED YOHO]: Sure.

[ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ]: This harm that Mr. Yoho levied, it tried to levy against me. It was not just an incident directed at me. But when you do that to any woman, what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters.

[NEWS REPORTER]:What do you think about that?

[TED YOHO]: She’s entitled to her opinion. That is nothing to do with our conversation. It was strictly about her policies. And I went to the Southwest border the week after she left, I went into the same cell she was in where she said children were being snatched away from their parents and the detainees were made to drink out of the toilet and she was cussing in front of the workers there.

And when I found out, they said, this is the drinking fountain, this is this. And so this has been a history of what she’s doing and it’s identity politics and I don’t play that.


Sizek: Yeah, so that is, I mean, this amazingly rich text. We have this part. Let’s maybe start with the part at the beginning, which is this question about gender and whether he can work across the aisle and whether that can mean that his attacks are meaningless.

Licata: Right, so I mean, again, if you’re assuming that or if there’s this underlying assumption that you’re not a misogynist, then that’s the argument that they make. And they don’t have these deep discussions about how women of color and/or how women are racialized in politics and the history of dehumanization of women of color.

So perhaps the conversations– I mean, AOC is controversial. I mean, there’s no doubt about it, but so is Bernie Sanders and we just he doesn’t receive that treatment. And he has a long history in politics. AOC is young and very proudly Latinx And she talks about these issues very readily.

But for some reason, perhaps the other conversations that Yoho has had with others, with other politicians who he’s racializing in this conversation and he’s using identity politics to his advantage here, perhaps they didn’t have, I mean, they didn’t have controversial conversations. I mean, we don’t know.

I mean, whatever would entice someone to call, to yell at on the steps on the Capitol Hill at someone, they didn’t do that for him. So something was particular about this conversation. And this is always the scientific academic argument. How can you prove that this person is misogynistic?

And I was asked this by a reviewer of the paper. I was asked this when I presented this paper at conferences. How can you really tell us that he’s misogynistic? But if you use the gendered slur, effing bitch, that’s misogynistic. But if you deny using it, then it’s just yelling about policy.

So the fact that he just denies the slur itself frees him from having to address any issues of misogyny or gender. The way that both Yoho and MacCallum talk about gender is like, what’s the gender line? It’s obviously they don’t really know how to talk about gender in a constructive way or what it means performatively.

So MacCallum also sets it up so that he can succeed in that conversation, deflect to AOC’s downfalls and what the right considers her– considers to be polemic and just go into her history and her and other issues that she’s brought up that they don’t agree with.

Sizek: Right, and I think it also points to this division between I can make one misogynist comment, but that doesn’t make me into a misogynist. And this has been a big question, I think, among people talking about feminism and political speech is like, how do you draw this line between labeling a person a misogynist and having one misogynist comment? When really it’s more like a spectrum in which, yeah, you are becoming more misogynist. As you make more misogynist comments, you can’t get a free pass for saying something.

Licata: And we can also draw parallels from these conversations we’re having on race. And what is a racist person look like or what do they act like? And that racism from the right-wing perspective is blatant violent harm where we know that it’s much more than that. We know that it’s– racism is interweaved into our daily systems and so is misogyny. It’s not any different.

But coming from this stance of not seeing these as systemic problems, they just don’t need to be addressed in these right-wing conversations. They’re looking at misogyny as something really blatant. And MacCallum sets Yoho up. I mean, the right-wing Fox News in particular, but others as well.

They play a huge part in perpetuating these reiterations or this avoidance of dealing actually with racism and misogyny because she’s very hard on him at first and then she starts to agree with him.

And this is how it works in Fox News. They say that they’re hard hitting. That’s their slogan. And they do hit hard at first so that the person can redeem themselves and then they can just snowball into agreement. And that’s what she does in this interview.

So she questions him pretty heavily in the beginning. Did you say this? Did you say it? These stories don’t make sense. They don’t line up. And then she just abandons that. So with more pushing, I’m sure you could get him to be more inconsistent about the matter, but that’s part of the scheme.

Sizek: Yeah, and I think one of the points that you bring up is this question as well, of how right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, how they police women’s speech or how they produce the realm of what’s appropriate language and what’s inappropriate language. So can you walk us through what some of the gendered norms for speaking in the political sphere are?

Licata: Sure. So, again, it’s hard to have to speak intersectionally about this because not everyone is going to be scrutinized the same way. But if you’re on the left, you’re going to be criticized by the right no matter what if you’re a woman, I mean, anyone. But if you’re a woman and you’re a woman of color, you will undergo processes of racialization, gendered racialization in those right-wing conversations.

So AOC, for example, is constantly criticized or she was more so in the beginning of her tenure and this was probably used to discredit her. But as she speaks Spanish, why is she speaking Spanish? She pronounces her name with a Spanish accent, why is she doing that? It’s frightening because what it’s doing is threatening white public space.

In politics or in the media, we don’t have accents. So anybody that comes, arrives with a slightly different phonetic interpretation or different appearance, like they’re threatening this white order. But we know that Black people and Brown people can ascribe to whiteness. There are Black Republicans.

And so, OK, why aren’t they being criticized? Well, it’s because they’re not stepping out of line. They’re using what we consider appropriate standardized English in that context, which is a very colonial idea. This is all reminiscent of colonialism of who civilized, of who speaks appropriately, who speaks well, who’s articulate.

So the moment you have somebody racialized show up speaking standardized English, it’s still an issue. We saw Obama being– oh, he’s so articulate. Oh, look how well he speaks. So it’s like, why wouldn’t he? He’s a Harvard lawyer.

And then you have the same just recently with Ketanji Brown Jackson. Oh, she’s so articulate. Well, of course she’s articulate. But then you have criticisms of AOC sounding like a child, a lot of infantilization of her voice.

But then when Amy Coney Barrett was up for her hearings you have the left doing that saying she sounds like a little girl, but the right is not saying anything. So a lot of it is just political alignment. But if you’re on the wrong side, people will come after you.

So with AOC in particular, because when she’s ascribing or when she. Quote unquote, sounds White, she’s criticized. When she sounds like a Latina, she’s criticized. So there’s standardized English or appropriate forms of speaking will never save her because she’s always going to be racialized by the right and scrutinized because she’s a progressive woman of color.

And we saw similar occurrences with Hillary Clinton more, I think, for her appearance and her stature. And so it seems like language serves often as a proxy to attack other isms or other identity markers. And language is a safe place to attack because it’s not protected by civil rights.

It’s not considered a civil right for a person to speak their language, or to have an accent, or that’s different from everyone else. So it’s easy to attack language because it’s not something we consider part of identity in many regards.

Sizek: Yeah, it’s like in the ways that because language is not a protected class, in the same way that you can’t discriminate against someone for their gender in theory, that you can attack someone for their language in a way that it seems almost untethered from their identity, even though obviously they’re intimately related.

And this is part of this question of code switching. And we have a clip from Tucker Carlson and Mark Steyn on Tucker Carlson Tonight, where they talk exactly about this question of code switching and criticize AOC.


[TUCKER CARLSON]: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started sporting a new accent while speaking at Al Sharpton’s extremely tax exempt conference last week. Watch.

[ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ]: The fights been long, y’all. This is what organizing looks like. This is what building power looks like. I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.


Sizek: Right, so just listening to that one short clip, we can guess how Tucker Carlson and Mark Steyn might respond to it. What are some of the markers that they are picking up on or they’re seeing as being a problem for the way that she’s speaking?

Licata: So for one, it’s the audience. So they’re going to criticize her language use, but they’re also criticizing who’s there. So she’s insincere. She’s at this predominantly black– she’s speaking to a predominantly Black and Brown audience with this invented accent.

I mean. I don’t know. AOC is from the Bronx, and she did grow up in an environment where she can access different registers, different forms of speaking depending on who she’s with. Some people even said maybe it was a bit exaggerated. And maybe it was, I don’t know. But she’s also part of that community.

And so the way that Carlson and Steyn set it up is that you can’t or that Carlson really sets it up is that you can’t have more. You have to have one identity and you need to be consistent. And if you’re not, then you’re insincere. And that is just, again, divorcing language from people.

And the field of linguistics generally is very guilty of doing that as well. Language is embodied. All the time humans produce it. And you can’t analyze language production away from its speakers. So to say that she’s sporting this accent, what is she doing? Is to assume that isn’t part of her identity or her history as Puerto Rican American in New York.

And there’s always going to be that– I mean, Obama experienced the same. And there’s been a lot of parodies about it. When he was with a more Black audience he used more African-American Vernacular English and a different register and was criticized just the same.

So what it does ultimately is assume that monolingualism is the norm. And everyone is multilingual. So everyone changes registers. Everyone has different forms of speaking depending on who they’re with, whom they’re with.

And so it’s assuming this permanent rejection of multilingualism as normal, which I mean, multilingualism is the norm, but it’s the rejected norm from, I mean, in US generally, but in right-wing politics especially, which is very monolingual standardized English supporting. However, even people on the right, they’re also not ascribing to a very monolingual standardized English.

So when someone who is racialized is veering away from that, they’re automatically– they’re tying in all these aspects of identity, skin color, background, religion with the fact that they’re producing something that’s marked.

Sizek: And I think one of the great things that you bring up in this point is that it’s not only a criticism of AOC and how she is speaking, but it’s also a criticism of the audience and of the entire situation that she’s in that she could have something in common with this audience that maybe some of the Republicans wouldn’t be able to have in common with the audience because there are aspects of having a shared background growing up in the Bronx that some of the Republicans may not have.

One of the strategies that they then use in this same interview is to really, I would say, switch gears and to make this into a point of comparison about Democrats practicing inauthentic language in general. So let’s listen to that next clip.


TUCKER CARLSON: – Dude, Cortez says she’s from the Bronx and she’s always spoken that way. She says it was code switching and that her normal day-to-day voice is the fake one. But she’s not the first Democrat to discover a long lost accent when speaking before an African-American audience. You’ll remember. Watch.

HILLARY CLINTON: – I don’t feel no ways tired. I come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy.

TUCKER CARLSON: – Mark if you patronized an audience that much, would you feel shame?

MARK STEYN: – Well, look, in fairness, I’d say Alexandria is — Hillary’s terrible at it, absolutely terrible. And Alexandria, if you’re going to do it, you have to do it with– and I speak as a foreigner. So I can’t tell the difference between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and William F. Buckley, Jr. All you Americans sound the same to me.

But Hillary can’t do it. And actually, I think that gets to the heart of it. Alexandria could get away with it in a way that Hillary can’t because I think for Hillary and Joe Biden when he was doing, they’re going to put you all back in chain. I think those people are saying, I want to be something other than White. Take my whiteness away from me.

I’m Indian like Elizabeth Warren. I’m Hispanic like Beto O’Rourke. Or I’m just whoever I’m standing in front of at the moment like Hillary. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whatever you say about her, is doing it with a much lighter touch.


Sizek: Yeah, so I think, I mean, one of the really fascinating and potentially very disturbing things about this clip is it’s actually a moment where Fox News is almost acknowledging intersectionality. They are saying like there is something about identity that is actually really important to the successfulness of code switching and how it’s perceived.

And also, obviously, these clips are from different eras and different times of political speaking, which should not go unnoticed here. So what do you think they’re getting at? And what can we learn from this second clip?

Licata: Well now they’re suddenly– I mean, for one, this is something that Fox News does. I have a few clips here, something I’m developing into a paper. But they invite someone who they consider to be foreign on the program to comment on these issues. So we’re going to bring on someone British. He’s foreign enough for us to have some authority on this subject.

So now they’re flipping a switch. They’re saying, OK, actually, it’s OK to code switch if you look different enough, or if you act, or if your identity is different enough. So what seems like, OK, what are they doing here? This sounds interesting. Is actually just reiterating these divisionary lines or these biological identity lines.

If you’re White, you can’t have more than one Identity. If you’re Latinx, sure, we’re still going to criticize you for it though. So it’s like this constant back and forth, that’s just very confusing. What are you trying to do with this discourse? And what they’re trying to do is say like, well, she’s foreign enough, she’s different enough, she’s other enough to get away with it, AOC that is.

Hillary, I don’t really know her. I don’t know where she’s from. I can’t remember. I mean, I don’t think she grew up in the south, but maybe she did. But obviously her accent was exaggerated. But what if she were from the south and she actually did have that accent? Most of politics is having to adjust your speech.

If you grew up in a very– if you grew up speaking a variety of English or any variety that is not super standardized, I would have to adjust. Being from California, I have a lot of uptalk. I can have a very Californian accent at times that people think is dumb. I’ve been told That you’re using too much or I’d have to modify all that if I went into politics.

So if I were with an audience of young Californians, would I be criticized for speaking like them? And who would know if it were sincere or not? So it’s this constant let’s draw the lines of who’s considered sincere, who’s authentic and who’s not. But then those lines are also then used later to marginalize.

So what they are doing here is clever and most people can’t perceive that, but it’s– and that’s why how you get people drawn in and that’s how you get them disgusted and upset at the presence of inauthenticity in their political arena.

Sizek: Yeah, and maybe with that, we can turn towards the ends of these forms of right-wing political discourse, because we have listened to a lot of Fox News clips. What’s the intent? How do these get their listeners to be on their side? We’ve deconstructed a lot of it, shown how the techniques that they’re using, but what are they trying to produce in their audience?

Licata: Sure. And this is typical of populism in general, but it seems to be a very good tactic of right-wing populism here in the US right now, especially in a post-Trump era or hopefully, post where they want you to feel disgusted. And so there’s a book called Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai. And disgust is what? This author considers the most extreme, ugly feeling.

So if you’re disgusted, you will have a very strong reaction to whatever it is that’s disgusting you and you will want to get rid of it. So we see that ugly emotion with Yoho in his encounter with AOC and that diatribe on the steps where like, oh, so disgusting, and he called her disgusting, that I have to do this, I have to call you out publicly.

And you see this with Fox News all the time, like, how horrible this person is. I mean, Ilhan Omar, Representative Ilhan Omar gets also a lot of slack from Tucker Carlson and other pundits for hating America. And she only hates America, according to them, because she’s not from here or that she doesn’t really belong here. So anything, any criticism is just pure hatred.

And people latch on to those. When that affect is drawn out of them, it’s very strong. And this is how– this is why there is such a strong following of Trump. And this new wave of right-wing populism is because people are disgusted.

And it’s all, again, against this backdrop of what they think America is and what it should be, which is, again, just it’s like as if America started in 1776, the United states, that’s when it was born as a– nothing existed before then.

So if that’s your baseline, then anything that threatens that order is very threatening, it’s very indicative of how public order is starting to change. And so the high number or the rising number of racialized people in Congress in these positions of power is just a constant threat to that white public order.

And people have very strong sentiments about their country. And so they just latch on to that rhetoric because it’s also sensationalism. And we have to remember that Fox News and all news media is a profit making media ecology that is looking to sensationalize and make money.

Where you see less of that sensationalist rhetoric is in those public radio that isn’t necessarily trying to make money. So Fox News does a very good job of drawing people in by ascribing to their emotions.

Sizek: Yeah, and I think what that does is it really helps us understand the broader political landscape. It’s not just this one instance of Yoho calling Ocasio-Cortez an effing bitch on the Capitol steps. It’s about this broader media ecology that enables that. So thank you so much for coming on and telling us about this broader media landscape.

Licata: Thank you so much for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit


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