Anyone watching MSNBC’s Morning Joe, this morning could sense something just wasn’t right. To the casual observer, all might have appeared well, but to those of us Morning Joe fanatics, we knew that the overt politeness, the lack of teasing, and the somber tone were indicative of something else: the uncomfortable aftermath of a family fight that still isn’t completely healed.
Thursday morning’s blow up between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski sent shockwaves throughout the blogosphere yesterday. Like kids in the middle of a parental disagreement, viewers were left to take sides and take cover. As they battled back and forth over the President’s record on women we didn’t see the trip wire but we sure heard it when it popped. Mika, who was trying to defend Mr. Obama’s male heavy inner circle, perhaps tiring of Joe’s ‘poking the bear’, finally launched the salvo that sent the entire set into silence: “you are acting like a chauvinist!” As sitting in the silence between the pulling of the pin on a grenade and the actual explosion, everyone sat stunned. Then it happened: Joe’s legendary temper flared and we were off to the races and when it finished, we were all muddied and sad.
The knee jerk reaction in the blogosphere was I would admit predictable. Progressives and most women ran to Mika’s defense, claiming that Joe was a bully, a chauvinist, and a member of the 8th circle of hell–the snapping of his fingers the ultimate sin in inter-gendered conversation. Others belittled Brzezinski for being the ‘abused woman’ and acting like a victim while being beaten every day by a domineering force. Watching this play out last night, I was saddened to realize that most people didn’t understand that this was something simpler–it was a very public conflict between two people who have worked together for several years. Yet, the public reaction to this conflict pointed to something organizational communication scholars like me need to attend to: the fact that we still don’t know how to process gendered communication especially at work.
Let’s face it. Many of the folks who were labeling Scarborough something short of Satan, did so not because of what he said but whom he said it to. Our politically correct, rather than nuanced understanding of gender conversations trumped everything else because all we knew was that “ A man can’t talk to a woman that way.” These folks easily (and I believed wrongly) placed Scarborough and Brzezinski in a gendered script that is outdated, unrealistic, and sadly more sexist than anything that Scarborough did or said that day. Rather than allowing them to be who they are–two very passionate people, with different political ideologies, who genuinely like each other, WHO HAPPENED TO HAVE A FIGHT–our traditional narratives demanded the application of a bygone duality that assigns values and conversational scripts based on anatomical body parts. Brzezinski, petite and blond, just had to be a victim and Scarborough, male, had to be the aggressor. It was, in this gendered script, ok for her to tell him to ‘behave’; to stop; and to yell at him (because after all that’s what women do) but when he snapped back, he crossed the line into verbal assault because after all men can’t yell at women without it being abusive.
Let me say here, especially as my dissertation advisor is about scream at me for ignoring her very important and oft cited work on sexual harassment and gendered speech in the workplace, that gender can and does play at times a significant role in the interactions men and women have in the work place. Abuse, harassment, and bullying happen to women every day in the workplace with sometimes-tragic consequences. But, and this a huge but, every time a man and a woman disagree publicly or privately at work, that does not mean that the woman is a victim or the man is a bully.
Mika and Joe have an on air chemistry that is one part combative, one part teasing, and one part ideological dissonance. Any long time watcher of the show and reader of their blogs, books, and articles, can sense that there is a deep affection and respect that each has for the other. They have strong opinions and they are both in their own way boorish with EACH OTHER. Mika rolls her eyes, sighs, or just ignores Joe. Joe teases, taunts, and talks over her to Willie and Mike just to get under her skin. Things went so wrong on Thursday because like most work spouses who know where the others tender spots are, a frustrated Mika hit below the belt in a way that she knew would shut him up. Unfortunately she also did so publically and in a way that both she and Joe knew could damage him and his brand. There are two things that you can call a white man these days that will damage his media career instantly– a racist and /or a sexist. They are charges that are never toyed with or used lightly–and they can never ever be launched in frustration. Mika knew that as soon as she said it. It’s why she immediately tried to distinguish between his behavior at the moment and the life he LIVED every day. Joe was clearly hurt, not because he doesn’t know how to take a political punch, because the accusation came from a woman whose career in part he has helped (ok I will say it–revived) and championed. Joe’s blow up was adolescent, it was uncivil, and it was brutish but it was not sexist.
Blow ups like these happen every day in meetings, conference calls, negotiations, and conversations between men and women who are each other’s biggest fans, who socialize with each other’s spouse, and travel together more than they get a chance to travel with their family. These conflicts are not between lovers nor are they between strangers. They are between people who have transcended our traditional understandings of workplace relationships. Such transcendence happens when co-workers are able to move beyond (note: not ignore) the complexity of the external and engage on a level of intimacy that is found when we connect spiritually. When we become free to express ourselves in our truth; be challenged; be comforted; and be supported not because we fear our co-worker but because we care for them.
Mika’s sin was that she challenged Joe on air and his was that he returned fire in the same fashion. Yet, their behavior belied how comfortable they were with each other; how close they were emotionally. This comfort level, which happens when people are truly close, can lead to these public blow ups because we are so comfortable with each other that we apply the rules of home and hearth rather than the traditional rules of the office. Those of us who have a work spouse have experienced this phenomenon–and it is both frightening and liberating. What we learned from Joe and Mika on Thursday was not that Joe is a sexist or Mika is a victim. What we learned is that we still don’t like it when Mommy and Daddy fight especially in the office (gendered metaphor intended and approved!).