Strategic Sarcastic Snorting and Other Equal Opportunities for Expression in Government

Becky O'Malley
Saturday September 07, 2019 - 11:58:00 AM

The reality TV show of the year played out last week in London. British media, including The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, kindly made it available to American viewers—and was it a trip!

My favorite exchange in the British House of Parliament on Wednesday went something like this:

“How can we trust the honorable Prime Minister since he’s been twice sacked for lying?”

Objections were then raised, calling for a ruling by the guy who yells Orrdurr, Orrdurr at the beginning of the session and frequently thereafter, who’s called The Speaker.

The outcome, apparently, was that it’s okay to accuse someone of past crimes on the floor of the House of Parliament, but not of current transgressions since they can’t defend themselves in real time. Or something like that.

One reason I enjoy watching debates in the British House is that I’m never quite sure what’s going on. It took me a long time to realize that saying Conservative members who voted against Boris Johnson’s expressed wishes were “denied the whip” meant that they were being kicked out of the Conservative Party. How harsh is that?

If you’d like the hilarious Cliff Notes version of that debate, check out Steven Colbert’s excerpt, featuring The Speaker: 


If you’d like to share the full experience, video can be found on YouTube: 


It was beyond impressive to hear the diverse members who had the nerve to vote together against Johnson’s no-deal Brexit speak up for what they believe—everyone from Winston Churchill’s grandson to the Scottish National Party member. Their dialects mapped their diversity, but they’re all great talkers. 

And it was impossible not to contrast their free and open expression of conflict with the wussy rules which lately prevail on the Berkeley City Council, scheduled to resume meeting next Tuesday after its traditional lengthy summer break. 

From the Berkeley City Council Rules: 

“Decorum: No person shall disrupt the orderly conduct of the Council meeting. Prohibited disruptive behavior includes but is not limited to shouting, making disruptive noises, such as boos or hisses, creating or participating in a physical disturbance, speaking out of turn or in violation of applicable rules, preventing or attempting to prevent others who have the floor from speaking, preventing others from observing the meeting, entering into or remaining in an area of the meeting room that is not open to the public, or approaching the Council Dais without consent.” 

Any British Parliamentarian (member of Parliament) would be tossed out in a hot minute. Every time lately when Mad Dog Prime Minister Boris Johnson says anything, he’s greeted with, yes, shouting and disruptive noises, including boos and hisses. 

In contrast, the Berkeley City Council’s order of march is mediated by electronics controlled by the Mayor, and interruptions are strictly prevented. 

But when a British Member speaks, any colleague who wants to interrupt just stands up, and the speaker has the option of accepting or rejecting the interruption, with the former the more likely choice. I haven’t watched enough meetings to know whether the linguistic observation of Deborah Tannen and others that women are more often interrupted than men holds true in this context, but I expect it does. In a recent essay, Tannen noted that “Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California was repeatedly interrupted by male colleagues during two different senate hearings.” British women, though, do their own share of effective interruptions in Parliament. 

Here in Berkeley, forthright Councilmember Cheryl Davila takes a lot of grief from the blogosphere commentariat for her blunt observations from the dais, which are sometimes punctuated with euphemisms for profanities. The presiding mayor tsk-tsks her frequently, but she hangs in there when she needs to make an important point. Councilmember Kate Harrison does a pretty fair job of restraining herself when foolish things are said in meetings, but every so often she can’t resist setting someone straight with her intelligent analysis of a problem—something she should be encouraged to do more often. 

But the booby prize for fauxny civility goes to the city of Santa Cruz. In that town there’s now a recall effort against two of the four progressive City Council members, who are accused, among other things, of supporting rent control (exactly as they’d promised to do in their campaigns.) And also, recall backers (among them registered Republicans) have alleged that both are mouthy on occasion. 

Well, maybe. 

According to accounts on the Santa Cruz Local news site, the city’s Human Resources Department engaged an outside attorney, to the tune of $18,000 and more, to investigate charges by four women, a couple of unnamed city employees, a councilmember and the city’s centrist mayor, that Councilmembers Chris Krohn and Drew Glover had somehow (hmmm!) dissed them because of their gender. 

The lawyer investigated seven putative claims against Glover and six against Krohn. He was only able to substantiate one minor beef against each of them. 

Obviously Glover’s real offense was being Assertive While Black (which also applies to Berkeley Councilmember Davila). He had a minor argument with an older White female councilmember over the use of a meeting room, and she told the investigator he’d been “aggressive”. 

The attorney conceded in his report that Glover had been bit rude on occasion, but found no reason to conclude that it was because of the gender of the other party. All four complainers were women, but the investigator found no connection between their gender and the charged interactions. According to Santa Cruz Local, “in a February city council meeting [Mayor Martine Watson] said she felt bullied by Glover and Krohn because she’s a woman.” That complaint wasn’t substantiated, nor were any of the other gender-based accusations. 

The single sustained complaint against Krohn was even more trivial. Here’s Santa Cruz Local’s report: 


“The investigator found one complaint against Krohn to be substantiated: that Krohn was disrespectful to a city staffer by interrupting the staffer with a sarcastic laugh when the staffer said something like ‘in my professional opinion.’ The staffer was giving a presentation with which Krohn disagreed.  

“The report concluded that Krohn’s 'laugh, scoff, or snort was severe and egregious, and violated the city’s Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy' because it was directed at the messenger, and not the message.” 


But snorting happens sometimes in governmental circles even at the highest levels. 


Evidently the attorney (and the Santa Cruz officials) missed the viral video where “ANGELA MERKEL SNORTS AS DONALD TRUMP SAYS HE HAS 'GERMAN IN MY BLOOD' “.  

And of course, laughing, scoffing and snorting galore happen all the time in Parliament. But evidently, not in Santa Cruz. 

Here I must confess that I’ve got a horse in this race. I happen to be Chris Krohn’s mother-in-law, and as such I find gender-based allegations against him particularly ludicrous. No mother-in-law would say that her son-in-law is without faults, but sexism is not one of Chris’s. 

He was the home-based parent caregiver for his girls for many years. He was Mayor of Santa Cruz when his first daughter was a toddler, and he conducted some meetings with her on his lap. When Daughter Number 2 was born, he took a leave of absence from public service, which he resumed when she reached high school. 

In the 25-plus years I’ve known him, he has always treated women, including me, his wife and my granddaughters, with the utmost respect as equals. This means, among other things, that he’ll argue with us every bit as vigorously as he argues with men, and so he should. 

As a feminist, I resent women who seem to be demanding privileged treatment because of their gender. 

We can’t have it both ways. Harry Truman said it best: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” 

The female Santa Cruz officials who’ve been crusading against these two progressive male councilmembers should set aside some time to watch the British women members debating in Parliament to get an idea of how women can participate in vigorous political discourse as equals, instead of being, yes, snowflakes, in a hot kitchen. 

They might even learn from Chancellor Merkel the strategic value of issuing an emphatic snort when the occasion demands it. It's a equal opportunity tactic--women can do it too.