Politics & Law

Democracy as dialogue — and the peril of excluding women from the conversation

Robin Lakoff

Americans are rightly proud of our increasingly democratic form of government. But too often we call ourselves a “democracy” without asking just what that means, or ought to mean. If we were to do so, we might discover that we are less democratic than we think. Occasionally, too, the inability of some candidates for electoral office seem even less aware than the rest of the populace of what “democracy” means or ought to mean. Once in a while – not often enough – they pay a price at the polls for their obtuseness. This election was one such time.

What don’t they understand about democracy? That it works as a conversation in which all those eligible take part – i.e., become part of the “us,” a conversation in which we explore what it means in the fullest sense to be human and to exercise autonomy and make rational choices that work for all of us. Democracy becomes greater as more human beings become eligible to take part in that discourse: both in that the franchise itself is spread more fully , and in that all who are eligible to participate are able both to speak and be spoken to (as opposed to being merely spoken about) in our political dialogue.

There is an intrinsic connection between being treated as fully human, and being able to play a full role in the conversation that is the democratic process. Being able to converse differentiates human beings from other creatures: all humans have the ability to converse, and by conversing we create human societies in all their complexity. To be excluded from participation in this ongoing dialogic process, to be treated as “it” or “them,” rather than “you” or part of a “we,” is to be relegated to the status of the infra-human, and to be treated with contempt and condescension.

To be human, then, is to expect – or demand — the right to speak. But all too often, those who have acquired those rights already fight with equal passion to keep them for themselves and to treat the “we” as exclusive – understand it as including “those like me,” but excluding those who are less so.

A century ago, women could be excluded from “democratic” discourse in the most obvious way: by being denied the vote, until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women partial inclusion in full humanity. As important as the suffrage was, though, it was not enough: all too often candidates for office  excluded them, often unconsciously, from the “we” of their campaign discourse, denying them full participation in the dialogue of democracy. It has taken a long time for women to realize the reality and perils of this exclusion, but a number of striking cases in this election have made it hard to ignore.

Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin

Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin

The rhetoric of some Republican candidates, and the failure of their cohorts to condemn that rhetoric in no uncertain terms, changed the outcome of this election in essential ways. In particular, the remarks of several candidates – in the general election, Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, but pretty nearly all of the candidates for the Republican nomination during the primaries –  represented women as bizarre, not quite human, beyond “our” understanding: they were (according to Akin) a bunch of vaginas that had (unspecified) “ways” to avoid getting pregnant through “legitimate rape,” (and thus, a woman who claimed to have gotten pregnant in that way was a liar).

If they did get pregnant through rape, the whole thing was (according to Mourdock) part of God’s plan, and God did not make mistakes; if women interfered in God’s intentions, they were satanic. In neither argument were women seen as autonomous, complex, or sensate humans, parallel to their male counterparts. They were in a weird way extra-human – they could do things that the human body by itself could not achieve – and at the same time infra-human (unworthy of autonomy). Therefore there was no reason why “humans” should understand them or give them rights equal to their own. You might, according to  this rationale, as logically argue that toads should be given the right to vote.

It was this undercurrent – the presupposed inhumanity of woman, and these men’s barely disguised revulsion – that stuck in the female craw more than concerns about reproductive rights per se. You don’t have to be pro-choice to find arguments like Mourdock’s and Akin’s as antidemocratic as they are loathsome. They undercut the attempts of Romney and his supporters to look like women’s friends (although the candidate himself did a good job of undercutting that agenda with his “binders of women”). As if Ann Romney’s declaration, “I love you women!” were not bizarre on its face (what would anyone have made of it if, in his acceptance speech, her husband had cried, “I love you men!”?), its lack of connection to any reality was made apparent when neither she nor her husband took direct issue with Mourdock and Akin. To the Romneys and their supporters, women are creatures who can be “loved” en masse, the way you can “love” fuzzy little kittens as a class – they all evoke the same emotions, and have just as much autonomy.

Hence, by their own words, two heavily favored candidates in very Republican states went down to ignominious defeat (Mourdock by 5 points, Akin by 15.5).

And hence we must, at long last, elect a woman president in 2016. Not because it’s time, not because women are necessarily better than men, not even because it’s the right thing to do – but because that, more than anything, would make it clear that women are really human beings.

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Comments to "Democracy as dialogue — and the peril of excluding women from the conversation":
    • Jacqueline Marquez

      Wow, as usual, Professor Lakoff is thought provoking. I wonder if a woman president would still only be validated by social norms that render her human. Would the title “Mrs. President” sound more humane than “Ms. President”? And would a woman need to be a mother president to prove that she is a capable woman president?

      While male politicians understand the value of being married — how else could they convince women they like women — still, the title “Mr. President” does not label a man a husband. But, wow, what a great concept — the idea that a democracy should humanize its members.

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    • james burleigh

      “If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue.” —former George W. Bush adviser Karen Hughes

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    • Dwight Lee

      Another excellent post from Professor Lakoff. Strong women who have the courage to give voice to their opinions and “speak truth to power” deserve our admiration, praise, and support. Fortunately, there are prominent, worthy examples for our young women to see and emulate, for example, Jan Brewer, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Condoleezza Rice, and Phyllis Schlafly.

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    • Miinya

      Very good point on what a true democracy is about. Equality is the cornerstone, but yet we see those that want to protect their position of power find ways to divide, split or divert the truth. We hear such language as “class warfare”, Socialist society, anti business, anti religion by those who claim to be the keepers of American values.

      As we all know, American values are generally common throughout the country regardless of belonging to/ or not belong to religous groups. My belief is American as nation values Liberty, right to free enterprise, right to equal access to American infrastructure, right to security, right to religion and good quality of life. I don’t believe most people are looking for any “hand outs,” but want those basic human rights. By using divisive language, some from the Right are obstructing the necessary dialogue to create progress in our society.

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