Carol Gilligan on Why Politicians Can’t Play Nice

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Psychologist Carol Gilligan has spent her career studying the childhood development of girls and boys, women and, more recently, the impasses in male-female relationships. She is the recipient of a Heinz Award for her contributions to understanding the human condition and was named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans.

Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan

She has authored and coauthored numerous books and publications, including In a Different Voice (1982), Meeting at the Crossroads (1993), Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship (1997), and Joining the Resistance (2011).

We talked with Gilligan about whether she thinks that this Congress — the most unproductive in modern history — can re-learn how to play nice and work out their differences. Or do they need a giant time out?

Theresa Riley: As a psychologist and ethicist, when you look at the gridlock in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, what do you think?

Carol Gilligan: The Republicans said that they were determined to make sure that Obama did not get a second term, so I think it was really an attempt to absolutely frustrate him — and they succeeded in a lot of ways. Nevertheless, he accomplished a great deal, and now he’s been reelected, so in that sense, we’re at a different place. That agenda didn’t get realized.

Riley: In December 2010, House Majority Speaker John Boehner famously told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl that he rejected the word “compromise.” In terms of childhood development, young children learn that when they verbally negotiate with others, they can keep play moving along and get what they want, at least part of the time. Do you think this is something that our lawmakers have somehow unlearned?

Gilligan: Instead of asking how we come to take the point of view of another person, how we learn to empathize with the feelings of others and cooperate, the question becomes how do we stop doing these things? I’ve done a lot of research with girls but I’ve also done a study with young boys between four and seven. Boys at that age are under pressure to become “one of the boys.” In the class that we followed, the little group of boys formed something called the Mean Team. Basically it was defined in opposition to anything that was seen as “feminine,” which was being nice or being good. So the main activity of the Mean Team was to “bother people.” That’s the point of view from which compromise looks like weakness, and it gets incorporated as part of what masculinity means. So it’s really a cultural construction that says strength is asserting power over other people. And then you get the ethics of what you saw in Congress, compromise being seen as a weakness.

So you could say that what went on in Congress and certainly between Obama and Congress was really a clash of value systems. One value system was, “We know the truth and any compromise is a compromise with the truth.” And Obama’s approach was, “Come, let us reason together.”

I heard Nancy Pelosi on Rachel Maddow talking about how much she valued the diversity of the Democratic caucus and how they arrive at consensus through discussion and through hearing each other’s different points of view. Instead of somebody coming and saying, “This is the party line and as a member of this party, you have to adhere to it,” they arrive at their consensus, which means that it’s built in a very different way. It’s like presenting children with a problem: How can we all get along in this class? And they have to learn: how do you work it out?

We made so much progress in the sixties toward a fuller realization of democratic ideas and values. And there was a very lively discussion of values at that time: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the notion that everyone needs to have a voice. I think there was a reaction against that and an attempt to put back in place what is really a patriarchal structure where a certain group of people — and you saw them very clearly in this election — felt that they held a privileged status and a privileged access to the truth. It was basically a group of older white men.

Riley: Another outcome of this election is that there will be more women in the Senate than ever before. What effect do you think they will have on Congress?

Gilligan: The question is really the culture [of the place]. And if you’re talking about a culture that places a group of privileged white men on the top and everybody else beneath, men and women stand in a slightly different relationship to that culture and women are more likely to name it as they did in the run up to this election — Sandra Fluke and the various people who spoke out. The men [who said those things] — they all lost the election and they were stunned. They didn’t realize how they would be heard and they didn’t think that other people really had a voice.

We saw a clash between two value systems. Bill Clinton said, “Are we on our own? Or are we in it together?” And “are we in it together?” is care ethics. If we’re all in it together, then we have to care about each other. Well, what does that mean? It means we have listen to each other, pay attention. It’s basically, it’s integral to the whole functioning of a democratic society, otherwise you don’t have a democracy. I mean, you have some kind of oligarchy.

I think women are more aware of this disjunction between how things are and how things are said to be. You get enough women so that you begin to build some resonance among them, and they’re more likely to resist that model of there’s only the “my way or the highway” view. So women’s voices are crucial.

It’s not that men lack the capacity for empathy or don’t know how to cooperate, it’s just that within a certain culture of masculinity, it’s seen as unmanly. The presence of women starts to shift the culture.

Riley: We heard a lot about President Obama’s first election shepherding in a “post-racial” society. Are you saying that we’re now entering a “post-patriarchal” society?

Gilligan: Yes, I really do think so. I think that’s where the demographics are going. It’s not that I don’t think there’s going to be a fight about it. But it’s not a fight of men versus women. There are men and women on both sides of this. It’s a fight between a set of value systems and assumptions that are very blatantly, patently patriarchal — you can see it in the Catholic Church, you can see it in Romney — and a set of values that are basically democratic.

So you have a patriarchal worldview where things are either masculine or feminine, and whatever’s masculine is privileged and whatever’s feminine is both idealized and devalued. That’s what I think was fought out in this election — and it was a close election, so we have to remember that. On the other hand, Obama won, more women were elected to Congress and none of those men who spoke out about legitimate rape — they all lost. I think it’s a tremendously important moment in this culture.

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  • arihalli

    I would hardly hold the democrats and Nancy Pelosi up as a standard of behavior for society. Tho, measurably better, in some respects, then the GOP – they have, by and large, contributed to the economic, political and social decline of this country. I really seel little difference between George W. and Obama when it comes to trashing civil and constitutional rights. Obama’s behavior regarding innocent deaths during drone strikes,the killing of Palestinians, gratutitous agreement with torture by neglecting to punish it and his egrecious shadowing and persecution of whistleblowers doesn’t stand the test of a person with any conviction.
    I think that Ms. Gilligan may be correct in investigating past behavior – as a clue to future behavior – why not? But we know what is going on now since its happened so many times before. Its a breakdown in the law. By our government and a pattern that has occurred over decades…

  • Padre

    “Are we in it together?” That is the question of community. I fear that there are a portion of the community that does not see the need of the rest of the community and figur5es it is all about themselves. That happens in the play ground but Congress has a communal responsibility. The “natural disasters” have called us to live as a community and I find that rewarding. May the Congress discover that their man made disaster also requires us to live in a community. Or perhaps this is a struggle to dominate a fiscally failed country.