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.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.