Saturday, June 23, 2007

essentialism by another name?

[this is another one of those posts that was only a comment but I grew impatient with the moderation dwell time.]
Amanda Marcotte put up an challenging post that cuts into a particular way in which Democratic party hopefuls attempt to please all the people all the time and wind up unidentifiable in their position or character. But in the comments she shines an especially clear light on one of her big issues:

Lakoff’s take on abortion is interesting—he thinks and I agree that it’s a debate over how to define “woman”. The conservative view is that because women can have babies, that’s basically our essence and to have an abortion is to assert otherwise. The liberal view is that each person and situation is different and a woman’s whole being needs to be the consideration when deciding if abortion is right, and since that’s so individual, it’s best left up to the woman herself.

The confusion arises over what always creates tension between essentialist and humanist views of women—most people have a hodge podge. We agree, for instance, that women have a right to be educated, but we blanch at suggesting that it’s perfectly fine for a woman to dress masculine. That’s how it goes with abortion, I think. A lot of people recognize the right intellectually but are made uncomfortable by what is coded in our society as a rejection of essential womanhood.

Which is why it’s so powerful to point out that most women who have abortions are mothers or will be mothers. It reminds people that the perceived conflict between “human” and “female” is a falsehood.

I just had to thank her for putting the matter in such suitably harsh light.

It seems to me that Marcotte and Lakoff are offering the essentialist view [as Chris explains it at mixing memory] as a theory of the cruel and broken incompleteness of much conservative "thinking". In a way, the mistake of essentialism, i.e. ignoring the complexity of real entities and organisms and especially people in favor of a token idea of the "nature" of that thing or being, reminds me strongly of the thesis that in the process of rendering a population susceptible to political manipulation via appeals to emotion, leaders carry out a campaign of substituting symbol for substance. Lobel & Loewenstein are legal scholars looking into how emotion takes over what should be more deliberative processes in law, national policy, politics and economics but they wind up finding fascists to be the most effective and the most intentional users of this kind of manipulation.

Applied to the abortion debate then, hammering the simple notion that women=mothers is like saying "Motherhood is the symbol for women... "[and, to finish the sentence with words Amanda might use to characterize the abortion opponents: "..., so shut up and bear children"]. And, like any other use of emotion in place of reason for political ends, power is the ultimate goal of the manipulator.

You may recall I mentioned that Lobel and Loewenstein paper maybe a year ago but I did not make the connection between essentialism and the casting of complex players into simple symbols until just now.


coturnix said...

You are right on!

GreenSmile said...

Well if you agree, Coturnix, I must be right. Now if I can shoe-horn those two notions into a post on framing....

Nah, just kidding. I will stick to post-and-beam or 2x4's for my framing.

The terminology creep that Lindsay pointed to the other day, the one in which all our enemies in Iraq are being morphed into "Al Qaeda" sounds a bit like the symbolizing/essentializing ploy...except that not many of us are buying it this time around.