It’s time to throw a foul flag in the race for attorney general — and it’s against the Maura Healey supporters trying to portray Warren Tolman, her Democratic primary rival, as somehow sexist because he uttered the word “unbecoming.”
That’s just not fair.
Let’s look at what happened here. Tolman and Healey were debating at the Globe. Healey was going after Tolman on the issue of his past involvement with an online gaming company and a hedge fund, and the fact that he was, for a time, listed as a lobbyist.
Tolman, who has accused Healey of taking liberties with the facts, was trying to deflect by saying the debate for attorney general should be more high-minded. In other words, he was playing the old “voters deserve better” card, a time-tested tactic for a candidate who is on the defensive.
When Healey, a very effective debater, persisted in her tough critique of him, Tolman rejoined: “You go down this path, Maura, it’s just unbecoming . . . I’m just surprised. You continue to push these issues rather than talking about the big issues that people really want to address.”
Given that context, it seems obvious to me that what Tolman meant was that her line of attack was beneath a candidate for an important office like attorney general. That’s certainly what a careful viewing of the exchange suggests.
Now, watching this campaign, I’ve been more impressed with Healey than with Tolman and consider her experience and qualifications a better fit for the office than his. But I have also known Tolman for more than two decades, and I’ve never heard anything from him or about him that would even remotely suggest he’s guilty of sexism.
If the US Senate condemns a member for “conduct unbecoming a senator,” we don’t look at that as some kind of sexist declaration.
So how, exactly, does one sustain such a charge? You can’t — unless your argument is that the term “unbecoming” is itself somehow intrinsically sexist, so that merely using the word is an offense.
I realize, of course, that there was a time when women were regularly told that doing this or that or saying this or that was “unbecoming for a woman” or even — double wince — “a lady.” However, the objection shouldn’t be to the word “unbecoming” itself, but to the phrase as a whole. After all, it’s the latter part that contains the patronizing assumption that men have the right to dictate the proper code of conduct for women and to chastise them for its supposed violation.
But the idea that “unbecoming” itself should be off-limits just doesn’t pass muster. If the US Senate condemns a member for “conduct unbecoming a senator,” we don’t look at that as some kind of sexist declaration. When a Washington Post online headline reads “Kathleen Parker: President Obama’s unbecoming appearance on ‘Between Two Ferns,’ ” a reader may well frown in disagreement, but it’s highly unlikely she or he would consider that a sexist criticism. Similarly, police departments regularly discipline employees for conduct “unbecoming an officer,” without anyone alleging that the standard or the term is sexist. Or try this thought experiment: Say someone writes of conduct “unbecoming a civilized nation.” Would anyone get exercised over that?
My point, then, is that “unbecoming” itself isn’t and shouldn’t be out of bounds. That being the case, it’s simply not fair to accuse its user of sexism when there’s no further evidence of that — and indeed, a strong contextual case that it wasn’t meant in that manner.
Do the smart, savvy Democratic women pushing this line really believe it? Well, let me put it this way: I’d bet that if this had been a general election rather than a primary debate, and if Tolman were the Democratic nominee and Healey his Republican opponent, they’d be out there forcefully defending him against allegations of sexism.
Manufactured indignation is part of politics, of course. It always has been, though in the Internet age, raising money by rocketing around the latest supposed outrage has become something of an art form.
Still, in this case, it’s unfortunate. Healey is doing a fine job on her own in this campaign. She doesn’t need tinny tricks to win this primary, and her backers shouldn’t resort to them — particularly when it means unfairly tainting the reputation of a decent guy who has been a long-time supporter of women’s issues.