Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Religious Freedom Debate: Do Men and Women Approach It Differently?

About the news that women voters are opting by large percentages to vote for the Democrats in the 2012 U.S. elections: I've been thinking lately (and so flash the warning sign: this is me thinking out loud, and these untested ruminations could be 1] wildly wrong, 2] dangerous, 3] completely unformed, 4] all of above).  I've been thinking, to be precise, about what strikes me as a fairly strong gender breakdown in the discussion of religious freedom issues in the U.S. right now.

As I began to think several days ago about who seems to act more or less immediately as religious and political authority figures push the religious freedom button, it suddenly hit me: I know of many more men than women who are energized by this rhetoric.  Who buy into it instinctively.  For whom it resonates.

I've been thinking about several e-friends and former readers of this blog from whom it seems I'm now alienated, because they didn't like my cynicism about the U.S. Catholic bishops' religious freedom campaign from the outset.  All of those e-friends and former readers of Bilgrimage are, as it happens, men--and, as it turns out, they're even more specifically affluent, white, heterosexually married men.

I'm well aware that there are women who have bought into the religious freedom campaign of the U.S. Catholic bishops and the religious right.  In my previous posting, I just mentioned (citing Irin Carmon at Salon), for instance, the political damage that Linda McMahon seems to have inflicted on herself by jumping onto the "religious freedom" bandwagon when it seemed that bandwagon still might be rolling someplace power-making.  Before the wagon ended up in a ditch, its wheels in the air, spinning wildly around and heading nowhere . . . .

And there's Cathleen Kaveny of Commonweal and Notre Dame, who felt it necessary to take it on herself to tell the world she intended to enjoy a Chick-fil-A sandwich in August, because she doesn't like being pushed around by those who shoehorn politics into everything, including our shopping choices and our selection of food.  And there are Mary Ann Glendon and Phyllis Schlafly, who would stand on their head for the U.S. bishops as long as the bishops say GOPGOPGOP loudly and persistently enough.

There always have been and always will be women who obtain cachet by learning how to perform properly and deferentially within male hierarchies of power, and who always have shared and always will share male expressions of faux outrage at being pushed around, when it seems politically advantageous to vent such outrage.  

But on the whole, as I think back through the months leading up to the 2012 elections and the failed attempt of the religious right (including the USCCB and key powerful centrist Catholic media commentators) to push the religious freedom meme, it strikes me forcefully that far and away the primary reactors when the bishops and their religious rights friends have pushed the religious freedom button have been men.  Not women.

And this was, after all, rather decisively driven home to us when the religious freedom hearings occurred in D.C. in February, and those sitting in the power seats at the table of the Congressional hearing were all men.  As the articles to which the preceding link points, this was a recognition that did not escape the notice of many women voters when the hearings were held, just as it has not escaped the attention of almost anybody at all with a head on his or her shoulders.

All men.  No women.

The gender imbalance of the "religious freedom" discussion has recently leapt out at me all over again as the Chick-fil-A discussion was briefly reignited in recent weeks when the organization at first seemed to be relenting on its policy of making lavish donations to anti-gay groups, and then let the world know that no way José did it intend to let the gays and liberals shove it around.  When word first came down that Chick-fil-A was relenting on its anti-gay policies, a hot discussion of this matter ensued on the blog of my state's statewide free paper, Arkansas Times.

And what struck me in that discussion--all over again--is how both right-wing and centrist men, and even some men in the liberal column, immediately become exercised when they imagine that "their" religious freedom or that of others is being infringed.  My freedom.  You'll pry it away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

That seems to me to be an exceptionally strong underlying psychological dynamic in this discussion: for some folks, it's primarily about my right to think, do, enact what I discern to be right, and no one will push me around or take that freedom away from me.  For others (and, I suspect, many of these are women), there are, I think, relational considerations that enter into the moral equation as we discussion religious freedom, and which mute the absolutism of the "my freedom, right or wrong" principle that trumps all other principles.

And so I'm coming to the conclusion, as I think through what seems to be a clear gender breakdown in how many of us appropriate the rhetoric of religious freedom, that what we're seeing in the religious freedom debates is an illustration of what Carol Gilligan calls the "different voice" in which women adjudicate moral issues--the voice different from that which many men employ as they approach moral issues.

Roughly formulated, Gilligan's classic insight in her classic 1982 work In a Different Voice is that--for whatever reason--females seem conditioned to approach moral quandaries by privileging relational thinking, while males approach the same quandaries with a heavy emphasis on principles ranked in hierarchical order.  Males look for the single principle that trumps all other principles and therefore "solves" the moral quandary under consideration.

Females tend, Gilligan finds, to think through a moral quandary by thinking first and foremost about how this decision or that one will affect those connected to the situation and to the lives of the moral agent.  And women are, as a result, often prone, Gilligan thinks, to moral solutions that weigh conflicting principle against conflicting principle without prioritizing a single principle that "solves" a moral dilemma.

As critics of Gilligan have noted for some time, this theory paints with broad strokes.  But it has made a contribution to moral thinking that is now considered classic, and I'd argue it has done so for good reason: there's something intuitively correct about what Gilligan finds in In a Different Voice.  Men do often tend to approach moral quandaries, I suspect, by looking for the single principle that trumps all other principles, and we men can become highly exercised when we imagine that that single trump principle is being ignored or violated.

Women do often tend, I think, to look at moral discussions less in terms of hierarchically ranked principles and more in terms of relationships and effects on relationships.  And for that reason, women often refuse to land on a single trumping principle and then use it to exclude all other principles from a moral discussion that requires nuance and balancing acts--and a recognition of the messiness of real-life moral thinking.

(Personally, I don't think these differences in the way men and women often approach moral thinking are rooted in biology.  I suspect they're rooted far more in social conditioning and in the unequal distribution of power in which men historically enjoy the "right" to define principles, arrange them in hierarchical order, and use them to reinforce the status quo by landing on "the" defining principle of the moment that just happens to serve male-dominant interests of the moment.  And I suspect that many gay men tend to understand and often to employ "female" ways of doing moral analysis because we've long been excluded from the principle-defining and principle-ranking--and have, in fact, typically been the object of the defining and ranking.)

And I definitely do think all of this has pertinence to the discussion of the religious freedom issue in the U.S. right now, and that the religious right, including the USCCB, wildly miscalculated when it thought it could ride the religious freedom bandwagon to victory in the fall elections.  Wildly miscalculated, because the USCCB is an all-male hierarchical structure and discounts (and therefore underestimates) the power of moral thinking among women.  Wildly miscalculated, because the religious right as a whole is totally dominated by the self-interest of heterosexual males, and therefore discounts the moral thinking and moral agency of women . . .

And as polling data are now showing, it discounts these to its peril.

No comments: