And Obama wept.
The New York Times, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera’s coverage of the most powerful man in the world wiping away tears as he spoke about gun control in a press conference, with those who had been impacted standing behind, was a positive step in countering the popular belief that tears are a sign of weakness; a trope that has been drilled into the heads of boys for centuries, and men have generally come to embody.
An acquaintance once mentioned that when her sister died, her dad took on consoling duties with the driest of eyes, stoically pacifying his wife and kids, but would excuse himself from the room every once in a while. But whenever he returned, she said, his eyes were redder than they had been previously. Evidently, he had gone off to cry in private, because shedding tears in public is not what men do—at least not the strong ones.
Which is why Obama’s willingness to cry in public is a refreshing break from the macho storyline of “men don’t cry.” Here’s a man who can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be mistaken for a weakling getting in touch with his emotions. In the past, he’s shed tears of sadness, crying after his grandmother passed away during his first campaign, and also at the funeral of a civil rights advocate. He shed tears of joy, and maybe of relief, on the night of his re-election as he thanked his campaign staff. Frustration over Congress’ unwillingness to act against gun violence with a mixture of anger and grief moved Obama to tears on Tuesday.
Until recently, public crying in the political realm was considered a detrimental career move. Case in point, Ed Muskie’s shot at the presidency in 1972 was derailed after he cried at a campaign stop, criticizing the Manchester Union Leader for the publication’s negative portrayal of his wife. At the time, he’d claimed his tears were melted snow, but the public thought otherwise. Now such an incident would most likely be tolerated, which is why heads of state like Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush can—and have—shed a few on TV. Weeping, it seems, makes politicians are appear more relatable. More human.
To be sure, while crying in public has become more acceptable for male politicians, for women in politics it’s still a tightrope to walk—as evidenced during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. Though some pundits and political analysts believe it helped advance her in the primary, others interpreted her tears as proof she wasn’t sturdy enough for the presidency. One can envision the same being said of Angela Merkel, if she so much as betrayed such an emotion in public. “She can’t cope,” her critics would say. “She’s too emotional.”
And “emotional” is a byword for irrational, an adjective generally reserved for and attributed to women.
But anger, love, fear, sorrow and hate are emotions manifested in one form or another by every human being. Hate and fear, for example, are emotions that drive police brutality, immigration crack-downs and war mongering. And who are at the forefront of perpetuating these acts, of drafting, supporting and executing policies that ameliorate or worsen these issues? Men.
When Hitler decided the answer to the Jewish problem was concentration camps, was he being logical or emotional? Or when Donald Trump claims that as president, he would make Mexico pay for a fence on the southern border, isn’t he pandering to the emotions of his supporters—who happen to be men and women?
Still, society is quick to portray women as the emotional sex incapable of reason.
Although crying in public may still carry negative connotations for some, studies show emotions, not logic, are effective in convincing people in an argument. Since statistics and logical arguments for gun control have not yielded any results, perhaps there’s a chance Obama’s emotional appeal might finally win him public sympathy and support in his fight.
Physical manifestations of an emotion, like tears, are innate idiosyncrasies that differentiate humans from artificial intelligence. So when you choke up, when you feel moved to tears, follow Obama’s lead and let them roll unabashedly down your cheeks. For salty water from the eyes doesn’t portend feebleness or incompetence. If anything, it makes you human.