Sunday, April 23, 2006

Random Musings on Voice and Debate

I am currently reading Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice and I'm having a hard time putting it down. Or rather I should say I'm having a hard time not thinking about it because I keep switching from being completely engrossed in her words, to experiencing little epiphanies that must be worked through and written down right this second in case I lose them.

So here's one of them:

Gilligan at one point talks about "Heinz's dilemma" - the question of "should Heinz steal the medicine" if his wife is sick and he can't afford it - and how girls and women often react to this question in ways that do not fit into normal psychological standards of moral development.

She explains that this is because while boys and men hear "should Heinz steal the medicine?" girls and women often hear "should Heinz steal the medicine?" The differences in the questions lie in the different assumptions each listener brings to the question. Boys and men assume the mode of action and debate whether action should occur. Girls and women assume action and debate it's form.

I found this all terribly interesting the first time I heard it described in another book (on how girls and boys learn differently) that I read in high school. But as I reread Gilligan's description of her findings, it occured to me that there are all kinds of questions of public debate that this idea could be applied to (that is, after all, her point), and I wondered if it would help explain the gender gap in politics more concretely than simply the assumption that women are more progressive. So, here is my attempt to work out how this affects the abortion debate:

should abortion be legal?

should abortion be legal?
assumed: that abortion will be regulated
questioned: if abortion will exist

Yes, it seems rather nonsensical at first to suggest that a question which is asking if something should be legal assumes by it’s very asking that it will be regulated. Really, the assumption is more that it can be regulated. However, anything that can be regulated is always subject to regulation, even when no rules about it exist. One does not, after all, propose to pass laws about when one may breathe or the color of the sky. The simple fact that the question about regulating abortion is not absurd in the true meaning of the word (as opposed to rhetorical: “should reading be legal?”) means that the question is assuming that the action being discussed is subject to legal judgment, even in the absence of explicit laws. Therefore the question is not asking if the act in question should be subject to regulation, but to what extend the act should be regulated.

In this sense the question is really asking if there is a way we can regulate it out of existence and whether or not that is a useful result. While it is an obvious truth that one cannot regulate anything out of existence, the goal of making something illegal is always to limit the act in question, thus the possibility that one may approach annihilation of the act, if that is one’s goal, is nevertheless present. So the question becomes, as it always does in American politics, one of competing rights and privileges. Is abortion a right or a privilege or something else altogether? Do others have rights and privileges which may interfere or be negatively affected by a woman’s choice to have an abortion?

should abortion be legal?
assumed: that abortion will exist
questioned: if it will be regulated

This question, however, assumes that the act being discussed can affected by regulation in only limited ways – in doing so it leaves open the possibility that regulation is not only ineffective, but absurd as well. When the act in question is abortion, as opposed to smoking marijuana, for example, it is undeniably true that regulation is absurd in certain instances. When it comes to smoking marijuana, one may simply choose not to act, but once one is pregnant, some action must be taken. Furthermore, pregnancies will end, no matter what actions a pregnant woman may take – so some abortions are quite literally impossible to regulate in the way the phrase “being legal” implies. (The fact that we pretend that miscarriages are not also abortions only confuses the issue, because while the emotional and intellectual process is different, the physical result is the same, and it is physical realities that are subject to regulation, not emotional and cognitive processes.)

In this sense, abortion is neither like breathing nor smoking marijuana. Instead the question is asking not only whether or not abortion can be regulated at all, but also, in instances where regulation is not absurd, if explicit regulation should exist. The conjunction of these two questions is important because, once the first possibility is raised, it informs one’s understanding of the second. Knowing that there are times when regulation of abortion is absurd brings into question the practicality of regulating it even when it is not.

While it is not universally true that men will hear the first question and women will hear the second, women's experiences with their own bodies, most especially with regards to the fact that they are more likely to see pregnancy as something the the woman participates in, makes it more likely that they will hear the second. Men's lack of understanding of these experiences, and their reliance on the patriarchal narrative that casts the man as actor and the woman as the recipient of his action, makes it more likey they will hear the first.

Which I guess is just a fancy way of supporting the argument that most pro-lifers see pregnancy as something men do to women.

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