Yesterday Vice President Kamala Harris briefly caused a significant portion of the social-media world to think that she was hopelessly liberal or simply out of her mind. At a recorded roundtable event in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, she introduced herself by saying, “I am Kamala Harris; my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit.” Not since Mitt Romney, as a Utah Senate candidate, announced that his favorite meat was “hot dog” has a factual statement made a politician sound so much like she was from outer space. Was anyone in the audience unaware of Kamala Harris’s pronouns, and that she is a woman? Most puzzling was the end of the clip, where she described her attire for no apparent reason, then flicked her tongue across her eyeball and adjusted her notes with a dorsal tentacle. Okay, I made up that last part.
As usual, context helps. Harris’s event was held on the anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act and focused on the effect of new abortion restrictions on the disabled. One convention meant to accommodate blind and visually impaired audiences is a brief self-description by the speaker. Other speakers at the same event, all putative humans, did the same. I heard the same extraterrestrial boilerplate at a Microsoft virtual event that I discussed a few months ago, where the emcee and opening speaker said they were “an Asian and white female with dark brown hair, wearing a red sleeveless top,” and a “tall Hispanic male wearing a blue shirt and khaki pants.” That’s all Harris was doing: giving a quick aid for the blind. Self-description is meant to be helpful to those who need it and unobtrusive to others. But to those unacquainted with the practice, it sounds like a failed simulacrum of human speech, the idiom of a pod-person.
I am sympathetic to efforts to accommodate participation by as many people as possible. One of the arguments for unfamiliar practices like these is that by adopting them, especially at high levels, we make them familiar—so that announcing one’s pronouns, for example, becomes routine and people with unexpected pronouns will therefore feel less bashful when noting them. (I strongly suspect that social change doesn’t work like this, and that speaking in a way that people find off-putting mostly just alienates them from you. But I see the argument.) Similarly, we might thank Harris for pioneering a practice that all decent people will someday adopt, which is giving cursory visual self-descriptions to bring the visually impaired on a level with the sighted.
Then again, a blind person might hear “I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit” and conclude that sight is a gift wasted on the vice president. The statement is true but also insipid. In fact the whole introduction gives the unfortunate impression that Harris thinks the blind are not only visually impaired but so uninformed about politics that they do not know whether the vice president is a woman and whether she uses sex-typical pronouns.
The standard script for these self-descriptions certainly suggests that the blind are into fashion. I can see just fine but routinely forget whether I am wearing pants and am sometimes accused of having dressed myself in the dark; I never notice whether Harris is wearing a suit or dress. Do most blind people care about these things much more than I do? Does remarking on banal sartorial detail help them? I doubt it. But I should not speculate too much on the views of those with abilities unlike my own. (In his memoir Deafness, the deaf poet David Wright describes the pleasure of feeling Bach’s Italian Concerto. I would have assumed the deaf didn’t care for music. Now when that piece comes on, I crank the subwoofers up in his honor.)
The practice of drawing attention to professional women’s clothing also bugs me, for old-school-feminist reasons. I don’t welcome a new practice that asks women to take part in a compulsory fashion show at the start of every meeting. At least in the White House, the burden would fall more heavily on Harris than Biden, who like most presidents wears the same thing just about every day.
Finally, self-descriptions raise the issue of what we actually use our eyes for—as distinct from what we say we use them for. Here I must confess: When I look at people, the characteristics I note only partly correspond to the ones in their self-descriptions. It seems patronizing to simulate sight by pretending that if the blind could see, they would look with saints’ eyes, rather than assessing others brutally like the rest of us—noting their hotness or ugliness; the expressions that betray intelligence, contempt, contrition, etc.; whether they appear rich or poor; whether they have a naughty or thuggish look in their eyes. A self-description that did justice to a real feast of visual data would be worth paying attention to. But you’ll never get “Welcome to Microsoft! I am an Indian male, about a six overall, but dressed like I have money. I have pecs that suggest mild ‘roid abuse, and that I’d stomp you if you keyed my Tesla.”
Of course no politician will ever self-describe in any revealing way—and they will instead default to the most reductive categories, namely gender and race. These attributes, along with age—which is, curiously, almost never mentioned in self-description—stick in one’s social memory, and others tend to evanesce. None of us can escape these categories. In self-descriptions, I hear speakers surrender to them preemptively.
If the vice president is going to transgress social norms for a virtuous end, maybe she could do so in a more ambitious way, and share something about herself not trivial. “I’m Kamala Harris. The latest poll says I’m running seventh out of 11 possible contenders for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. I’m wearing a mask, so, conveniently for me, you cannot really tell how I feel about this.” Now that would be a norm-busting introduction by a politician.