Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Gender and Political Discourse

By Guest Blogger Jamie Abrams

This is my third summer guest blogging with the Gender and Law blog.  In prior years, I have comfortably crafted an idea, polished the text, and published the blog for critique and discussion.  I have always received thoughtful engagement on the blog posts and the process of writing them has made me a better writer, scholar, and teacher.  For some reason, however, this approach has not worked this summer.  I have struggled greatly with why that is so, particularly in a year in which the battle for gender equality seems to be slipping so far in the wrong direction.  Indeed there are endless articles and current events on which I could be writing.   

In struggling to understand this newfound writer’s block, I came across the article The Believing Game – Methodological Believing by Peter Elbow.  This article resonated with me on a deep level in thinking about the status of modern political discourse and its relevance to gender equality.  In summary, the author argues that we are born as methodological “believers.”  We begin life inherently believing the things our parents and those in authority tell us.  We are welcome to new ideas and open to listening eagerly and sincerely.  Over time, we are taught to engage instead in what Elbow calls “The Doubting Game.”  This, Elbow explains, “represents the kind of thinking more widely honored and taught in our culture” in which we learn the “disciplined practice of trying to be as skeptical and analytic as possible with every idea we encounter.”  This doubting game dominates modern thinking and indeed it dominates the traditional law school curriculum.  Applying Elbow’s thesis to modern times, the doubting game seems to govern how we process news, how we vote, how we interact with others in nearly every political and social respect.

As a culture, however, Elbow argues that we have not developed methodological believing to match our skills for doubting.  By this he means that we don’t know how to use belief as a tool to decide whether to accept or reject a particular position.  Yet the believing game offers critical additional tools to help us find flaws in our own thinking.  It allows us to test our very assumptions by trying to understand what is valid and worthy of belief in a different viewpoint.  It allows us to find “hidden virtues” in positions as a tool to strengthen our own thinking.  The “believing game” pushes us to “dwell in an idea” to try to understand it.  The question of rejecting or accepting the idea is another matter entirely, but it is through belief in the idea that we process and understand the idea in the first instance.

These methodological approaches are also closely connected to gender norms.  The doubting game – which dominates so much of our political and social discourse today – is associated with masculinity, Elbow notes, in its emphasis on arguing, challenging, resisting, pushing back.  Whereas the believing game is much more associated with femininity in that it emphasizes listening, relating, understanding. 

Elbow ultimately concluded in 2008 that we are losing the lens and the language to engage in methodological believing.  This thesis seems even truer today.  As I absorbed this article, a lot of things began to fall into place for me.  I wondered if my struggle to blog, or even to engage in any political discourse on social media since the election comes from the painful realization that such efforts are largely futile to the extent that they try to promote a greater understanding. 

This article leads me to a few conclusions.  First, it reminds me that the stagnant role of women in politics is deeply concerning for the longstanding critique of who is governing and the representativeness of our political leadership.  But also that gender inclusion and diversity more broadly in politics stands to shape how we are governing and engaging in political discourse generally.  Second, it reminded me that rather than digging in deeper on defending and supporting our views, we need to better frame the rigor of political discourse.  How to do that, of course, is the bigger question to which I have no answers.  All that I share here is that diagnosing the problem as one rooted in our very approach to the methodology of critical thought helped me for a moment to see past the “fake news” and ideological divides that govern the headlines today.  It helped me to realize that the gender equality project is about more than just a group of individual legislative reforms or initiatives.  It is connected to the very values that we embrace and idealize in political discourse.


Guest blogger Professor Jamie Abrams is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law where she teaches Torts, Family Law, Legislation, and Women and the Law. Her research focuses on reproductive and birthing decision-making, gendered citizenship, legal protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence, and legal education pedagogy. Professor Abrams' most recent work includes Debunking the Myth of Universal Male Privilege, in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, and The Feminist Case for Acknowledging Women’s Acts of Violence in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism.

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