A Psychological Look at What Makes the Current Debate About Women’s Rights So Dangerous

Lately, it has occurred to me that writing constantly about Rick Santorum and women’s rights, while sparking conversation among many, mostly liberal, readers, is probably almost as counter-productive as it is productive.

Let me back up here. Where did this sudden questioning, not just of abortion, but of whether or not women should be forced into motherhood if they choose to have sex, originate? According to the Newsweek cover story Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?, bringing this up was part of Obama’s long-term strategy to turn women (roughly half the population) against Republicans. By encouraging legislation that would force employers to cover the cost of their employees’ birth control pills, writer Andrew Sullivan argued, Obama knew he would cause a flurry of Republican backlash that would quickly alienate women.

We can’t know if Obama’s strategic team actually planned this, but it is indeed happening. No matter how smart this strategy might be, and how “nonsensical” Republicans’ debates are, I fear that this has started something much more dangerous than we can easily foresee. People who are not worried about the conversations about women’s rights happening right now aren’t worried because they are assuming that people, for the most part, are rational. I’m not going to argue that human beings aren’t rational – there are probably some cool economic studies that argue otherwise – but that there are certain conditions that cause humans to act absolutely irrationally.

In this case, many of them are present. A couple of these conditions are institutional – has anything made people act as irrationally as religion? Serving in the legislature, among so much polarization and pressure, probably causes irrationality for too many reasons to list. Diving deeper into the human psyche, this whole debate is tied into two drives that most certainly challenge rationality – sex and power. Rather than getting into the long history of men seeing women’s sexuality as a threat to their power, I’m going to argue that this whole debate is dangerous because of two simple psychological phenomena.

1. Memes and Agenda Setting
A lot of the things I’m hearing about sound absolutely ridiculous at first. Force women whose babies die in the womb to carry them to term? That’s not even protecting a human life! I’m mad now! But while we think of memes as funny cats and shareable games, they can be any idea that is, for one reason or another, easily able to spread from person to person. In this case, an idea that is easily worthless suddenly gets blown out of proportion because people want to talk about how angry it makes them. But the unintended consequence of blowing up these kinds of stories is that it forces them to the top of the public agenda, beating out racial inequality and Wall Street, suddenly begging to be addressed.

2. Group psychology
When we force ideas to the top of the public agenda, they can be easily susceptible to group psychology. Many people think Freud predicted fascism with his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which argued that people in groups are subject to contagious ideas and emotions, easily acting totally out-of-synch with their individual beliefs or inclinations. Basically, it’s the dynamic that can make a republican too embarrassed not to vote against a contraception bill, even if he knows it would likely prevent countless abortions.

Basically, all of these ridiculous ideas, and the angry liberal columns flowering up about them, are challenging conservatives to out-conservative one another. While this may split the party, it could also makes their group sentiment even stronger, and more contagious. If Mitt Romney was acting according to his own inclinations, he would probably not be out there, as Salon described, “barnstorming across the land condemning gay marriage, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, access to contraception and the wall separating church and state.” He’s just playing the groupthink game along with his peers. But before you argue that this is just election season drama, consider that we have opened up a well of polarized warring that won’t fade away easily. Men, including Obama, need to know that women’s rights should not be used as pawns in election season play.

-Becky Lang