An election race fills the airwaves with chatter and political commentary. Just like Christmas is the season to be jolly we now seem to be in the season of political chatter. Televisions are filled with coverage of the UK elections and the continuous controversies that are plaguing the Trump administration. The reporting and debating of politics is filled with one thing and one thing only people talking, often over each other. This is the sonic signature of politics: the sound of chatter, debate, policy, arguments and spin. The sonic seems especially key in this season, when a soundbite can make or break an election and in each moment President Trump seems to contradict his White House and himself.
Each election cycle brings public speaking into the fore. This means that the sonic holds more of an importance within politics. During these speeches, the public in earshot don’t really have a way of individual response. Instead they join in the collective actions of clapping, if they are in an agreement. Max Atkinson in ‘Our Master’s Voices’ discusses this: “At the same time, collective activities like clapping and booing can be used as a substitute mode of response by people who are deprived of any individual opportunities to speak.” Atkinson wrote this book before the advent of social media. There is a two-tiered response to a public speaker. The inner circle, as described by Atkinson is in close proximity to the speaker and is sonic. The second is distanced and on social media. This response often takes place without sound, purely text or text and image.
The current general election in the UK is producing two sealed envelopes. This term I take from Greg Goodale’s book ‘Sonic Persuasion’, who uses the term sonic envelope to describe the dangerous bubble Hitler created: “Even as it protects those inside the envelope. The cheers at Hitler’s Nuremberg brought the German people together as an Aryan nation and simultaneously created the motivation and justification for the murders of seven million people not inside that protective envelope.” This is obviously the most dangerous example of a sonic envelope. Envelopes also exist within these two tiers of response in public speaking. There is a sonic envelope when any political leader or candidate speaks only to a closed audience, party members for example. There is the equivalent of the sonic envelope on social media, often referred to as a bubble. This bubble is where, through the algorithms of social media you only really see posts from those who share your views. This creates a dividing line.
This general election gives the sonic element of politics something it hasn’t heard in a while: the vocal tones of a female speaker running for PM. I am not here to praise Theresa May, far from it, but her presences in an election does provide a chance to examine female and male speaking voices and the monopoly men have had on public speaking. Here again, I turn to Max Atkinson, who analysed Margaret Thatcher and the change in her voice. Thatcher deepened her voice to sound more authorial. What does this mean? Why does one voice sound more authorial over another? Atkinson speaks of the control the male voice has had over debating and public speaking: “This is not just because the skills of oratory and debating have been monopolized by men for such a long time, but is also because there are differences in the length of male and female vocal chords which result in the difference in pitch of male and female voices.” The deeper voice carries more weight. It was for this reason that Thatcher lowered the pitch of her voice. Better to be called authorial in sound than shrill.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the second Conservative female Prime Minister has a deep tone of voice. Although we do have a range of tones due to the Scottish First Minister and various party leaders being female. No longer is a high-pitched voice in a politics debate viewed as shrill, as Atkinson once wrote: “The fact that the sound of a woman raising her voice is more likely to be negatively evaluated as ‘shrill’ or ‘screeching’ is probably at the heart of a source of irritation which is familiar to many professional women, namely the tendency of male colleague to accuse them of –over-reacting’ whenever they become involved in arguments.” This is something we can be extremely thankful for. This increase in female voices in politics, compared with when Atkinson published his book, means that the sonic element of politics is wider, the range of pitches heard is wider.
Max Atkinson, Our Master’s Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics, 1994, Routledge
Greg Goodale, Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age, 2011, University of Illinnois