by Peter Watts
The testimony of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor teaches both how to avoid a self-inflicted presentation pitfall, and also how to escape it.
During a week of intense congressional cross-examination, Sotomayor demonstrated herself a model of calm, intelligence, and perceptiveness. Allies who sought to aid her were nurtured, while those who sought to provoke her were defused.
One particular area of the hearings came to dominate media coverage, and at one stage did become a problem for the unflappable nominee, and that was the much covered “Wise Latina” quote.
The “Wise Latina” phrase that caused consternation amongst Sotomayor’s adversaries, had its origins in a speech the nominee had made some years earlier to a group of students. When viewed in the context of the audience addressed, it made perfect sense; a clever, humorous phrase that both flattered and encouraged. When taken out of context however, and viewed in isolation, it implied that one group, defined along racial lines, was inherently capable of better judgement than another.
The phrase was too narrowly defined, taking a point and stretching it into the realm of hyperbole. It would inevitably return to publicly haunt its creator.
When adding rhetorical flourishes to presentations, especially ones that flatter one group through comparison to another, always ask yourself the question “How would it sound if this was later quoted in isolation, away from the group for which it was intended?”
If the quote suddenly sounds clumsy, or even worse, prejudiced, be sure to leave it out.
Having fallen into her own rhetorical pit, Sotomayor then elegantly demonstrated how to escape it; she apologized.
Many of us would have attempted to explain the phrase and then defend it. We would not have wanted to so publicly admit we were wrong. Sotomayor did the exact opposite. Having explained the origin of the “Wise Latina” comment and placed it into context, she made a modest statement that she had got it wrong. The phrase had been clumsy, and she regretted using it.
Having made such a concession, Sotomayor’s adversaries in the hearings now had nowhere to go. To have kept attacking post-apology would have made them appear petty. Even dedicated detractors are disarmed by a well placed acknowledgement of “I was wrong”.
Sotomayor, now secure in her path to the Supreme Court, not only proved to us all the wisdom of the phrase “When in a hole, quit digging”, but also demonstrated that sometimes apology can be more deadly to an opponent than defense.