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Rashida Tlaib and the politics of tears

There is a place for tears, but strength and resolve are often needed more than uncontrollable weeping

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Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., cries during a demonstration calling for a cease-fire in Gaza in Washington on Oct. 18, 2023.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., cries during a demonstration calling for a cease-fire in Gaza near the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, Associated Press

A certain brand of conservative likes to see liberals cry.

Madison Cawthorn’s first tweet after being elected to Congress in 2020 was “Cry more, lib.” Almost every conservative online shop has some variation of a “Liberal tears” mug or drinking glass. And Donald Trump Jr. and his father had a reliable applause line on the campaign trail in 2020 when they urged supporters to “Make liberals cry again.”

All this came to mind Wednesday when U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib sobbed during a Washington, D.C., rally calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. The Michigan Democrat said she is distressed by the videos coming out of the Middle East in which people are telling children not to cry.

“They can cry, I can cry, we all can cry — if we’re not crying something is wrong,” Tlaib said, while crying herself.

Most of the response on social media to the moment focused on the fact that Tlaib, a member of the informal progressive caucus known as “The Squad,” said Israel was responsible for the bombing of a hospital in Gaza — a claim that Israel and the White House has denied.

But she was widely ridiculed for crying, and some commenters even claimed her tears were contrived. (The three-term congresswoman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, has cried previously in public, including during a hearing on Capitol Hill.)

Regardless of the reaction, the video is a contender for the TikTok account “CryinginDC,” begun by a Senate staffer who lost her job and spent the next several months crying at various landmarks around our nation’s capitol.

As explained in The Washington Post, the creator of the TikTok account, Kiara McGowan, wants to “normalize” crying in public spaces. “I definitely feel like we should all do it more. It should be just as normal as someone sneezing,” she said. Her most recent videos extol the virtues of crying in the produce aisle of Trader Joe’s and the back seat of an Uber.

One can be genuinely sorry that McGowan lost her job and understand her need to weep without wanting all of us to be crying more, especially in public spaces. In fact, it should be a common goal of Americans that we both cry less and sneeze less.

But hers is the sort of sob story that has turned crying into an effective political weapon for Republicans, and social media is full of conservatives making fun of liberals wailing and screaming about various issues on TikTok.

The answer to bad speech may be more speech, but the answer to bad things should not always be tears. Sometimes, the answer to bad things should be strength and resolve, neither of which are communicated through uncontrollable weeping.

Proponents of crying, like McGowan, cite research that says repressing tears can be harmful and shedding them is good for us. Eating kale is good for us, too, but there’s no need to do that in public either.

That said, there are times when tears are appropriate, even when shed by our leaders. Former President Barack Obama memorably had to wipe his eyes during a news conference on gun control when he was talking about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And Politico has recounted the times Republican presidents have cried, too, including when Gerald Ford cried during a tribute to his wife at the Republican National Convention in 2000, George H.W. Bush spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 and George W. Bush participated in a Medal of Honor ceremony in 2007.

I’d argue there was a quiet dignity to those presidents’ tears that was missing in Tlaib’s outburst this week.

But Tlaib can find solidarity with Winston Churchill, who cried so often during World War II that some called him “cry baby.” Churchill’s copious tears were both public and private.

According to an article entitled “Winston Wept,” published on the website of the International Churchill Society, “Churchill’s last private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne, once listed some of the things that triggered tears from his boss. These included everything from tales of heroism to a noble dog struggling through the snow to his master.”

And the title of that article, of course, recalls another instance of weeping in public, recounted in chapter 11, verse 35, of the Gospel of John.

So those of us who instinctively recoil at the sight of Tlaib or any other person weeping in public have to be careful in our criticism. Judge not, that ye not be judged.

But also, maybe weep not, that ye not be judged.

Or as the kids would say, cry less, lib.