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Reaction to McCain's Lack of Eye Contact During Debate

I commented on John McCain's lack of eye contact in my first follow-up debate post, and I'm now seeing a lot of interest and concern in the blogosphere expressing the same sentiment, questioning what sort of psychological or character flaws have been revealed by McCain's strange debate behavior.

Additional commentary picked up from a cross-section of the web:

- Delysia's Space: First, I believe that McCain feels contempt for Sen. Obama and resents the fact that this young Black man is actually a threat to what McCain feels he is entitled to as a White Man, a former POW and a long-time member of Congress. He knows, now, that he cannot afford to underestimate Sen. Obama's intelligence, judgment, knowledge and support, and therefore thinks of Obama as he would an enemy of war. Secondly, McCain also found it difficult to look into Sen. Obama's eyes during the debate because of the lies he has told in the past, and the lies he knew he'd continue to tell during the debate. Like anyone else lying brings about certain unconscious responses in us; either the eyes will blink continually, they'll become enlarged (widen) or they'll escape any direct gaze into the eyes of the subject of the lies and/or the eyes of those being lied to.

-The Monkey Cage: Ethologists have discovered that in the animal world, eye contact is a sign of dominance and the avoidance thereof is a sign of submission. That's why, if you meet a bear in the woods and you don't have Sarah Palin along to blow him away, you're supposed to avoid eye contact with said bear; otherwise he is likely to perceive you as a threat, and that just cannot be a good thing.

Anyway, look at reader TB's comment: "I study monkey behavior -- low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight ..." Ethologists like TB have indeed compiled a great deal of evidence about the hierarchical meaning and implications of eye contact. Their findings can't simply be extrapolated to human behavior. But we humans are, after all, animals, so this isn't as far-fetched as it may initially seem.

obama_mccain_deb1.jpg

- "Monkey Cage" Commenter Clyde Wilcox: An older gentleman explained to me that when he was growing up, he was taught not to look a black man in the eye because they were considered inferior, and were not shown that much respect.

- Julie (via email): I believe what will do McCain in in the minds of many young people and older adults is McCain's refusal to look at his opponent! It Says he's angry, unforgiving, not amicable, not able to work across party lines. And it is not where America wants to go, she does not want to stay angry and bitter. She wants to be positive and feel good, especially in these times of economic distress, with McCain, you just didn't get that!

- TPM commenter EO: As a psychotherapist and someone who treats people with anger management problems, we typically try to educate people that anger is often an emotion that masks other emotions. I think it's significant that McCain didn't make much, if any, eye contact because it suggests one of two things to me; he doesn't want to make eye contact because he is prone to losing control of his emotions if he deals directly with the other person, or, his anger masks fear and the eye contact may increase or substantiate the fear. I noticed him doing the same thing in the Republican primary debates. The perception observers are likely to have is that he is unwilling to acknowledge the opponent's legitimacy and/or is contemptuous of the opponent.

mccain-at-debate.jpg - James Fallows: Unless it happened when I glanced away, up until this moment, 77 minutes into the 90-minute debate, John McCain has not once looked at Obama -- while listening to him, while addressing him, while disagreeing with him, while finding moments of accord. This is distinctly strange -- if anyone else notices. Obama is acting as if this is a conversation; McCain, as if he cannot acknowledge the other party in the discussion.

- Golden Years My A$$: I'm wondering whether McCain realizes that all his talk about being able to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats sounds hollow when he can't even be cordial with his opponent at a debate? He's become a very small, bitter old man. Not pretty.

- WaPo's Eugene Robinson: Throughout the 90-minute debate, McCain seemed contemptuous of Obama. He wouldn't look at him. He tried to belittle him whenever possible -- how many times did he work "Senator Obama just doesn't understand" into his answers? His body language was closed, defensive, tense. McCain certainly succeeded in proving that he can be aggressive, but the aggression came with a smirk and a sneer.

CBS News on body language during the debate:


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Comments (7)

It's the same old John McCain who holds grudges and hates others who disagree with him. Nothing much has changed in his 10 million years back there in Washington.

In fact, I'm just waiting for McCain to say in the next debate about his opponent form Illinois, "I knew Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a friend of mine. You're no Abraham Lincoln".

Lisa:

Maybe, just maybe John McCain doesn't care to look at people who hate America, are ashamed of America, want America to lose a war, who attend churches where America is G-DDAMNED from the pulpit, who is doing his level best to bring socialism to this country?

Maybe he had better things to look at.

Felicia:

AS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MOM WHO WATCHED THE DEBATE WITH HER IMPRESSIONAL , HOPEFULL , CHILDREN, WE WERE ALL VERY MUCH AFFENDED BY JOHN MCCAINS BEHAVIOR. THE WAY HE TREATED OBAMA TOOK US ALL BACK TO HISTORY, AND WE FELT LIKE WE WERE, BACK IN A TIME WHERE WE SHOULD BE ON THE BACK OF THE BUS.ITS OKAY TO DISAGREE, BUT WHAT SENATOR MCCAIN DOESNT UNDERSTAND IS THAT HE DISRESPECTED AND DIREGARDED NOT ONLY SENATOR OBAMA, BUT THE ENTIRE BLACK COMMUNITY, WHO WANTS TO BELIEVE THAT WE MATTER TO BOTH CANDIDATES. NOT ONLY IS OBAMA THE BETTER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, HE'S THE BETTER MAN.

Lee Ward[TypeKey Profile Page]:

Well said, Felicia.

Mike:

Yes, it's all about the color of someone's skin right? That's all it could be, McCain simply hates black people. I suppose the same can't be said for black people who vote for black people because they don't like the white guy right? Or is that an okay thing?

I guess it's not possible in any way to dislike Obama because of what he represents? No, that would be impossible. I'm white (there I admitted it, flog me) and I do the same thing to ignorant white people that get on my nerves and who don't deserve my respect. I for one did vote for a black man running in my district and I was also a supporter of a black man running for president in the past- just to dispel any doubts that I might be racist myself.

Dave:

McCain's lack of eye contact may in fact be a sign of the senator feeling guilty or ashamed for being dishonest.

McCain has sold his soul to the devil and seems to be willing to do and say anything to win. So if this guy has any sort of conscience, it should be expected that he would have trouble looking his opponent in the eye.

McCain looked like a fish out of water. There he was with his talking point (Obama does not understand) when all I could see was, MCCAIN NOT ONLY DOES NOT UNDERSTAND, but MCCAIN IS CLUELESS. (See: foreign policy debate over going to war vs. troop surge)

Felicia:

An authority figure like John McCain has to understand that not only adults , but children of all races want to look up to him . To a child in the black community, who understands what a historic event it is right now to have our first black nominee is overwhelming. We are not saying that he deserves to win because he is black. He may not win , That's okay. What we would like is for John McCain to at least acknowledge how huge this is for us and to at least treat his african american opponet as a human being , for the sake of impressionable children. It is not okay to exercise rude and hostile behavior, Both candidates owe it to the children in this country to be positive role models.


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Editors: Lee Ward, Larkin, Paul S Hooson, and Steve Crickmore

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