This Is Why We Can’t Have Rational Debates…

Of all of our arguments about politics and policy, efforts to level the playing field for women and minorities seem to evoke the most heat and the least light.

A reader recently shared with me a lengthy, rambling letter to the editor  that appeared in a publication called the Carmel Current. (Carmel, for non-Hoosiers–is a bedroom community north of Indianapolis). The female letter writer ripped into organizations like the National Organization for Women and that dreaded group of harridan warriors, the American Association of University Women, accusing them of “gender feminism” that promotes the “inequality of men.”

Among other accusations, the writer argued that calls to reduce the pay gap between men and women aren’t really calls for equity, but rather part of an effort by “gender feminists” to diminish and disadvantage men.

American women make their own choices. They are succeeding at tremendous rates, most especially compared to men. Extensive research has been done on this subject by Professor Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-declared freedom feminist who has multiple publications regarding the misguided policies of gender feminists. The bogus “wage gap” is not a real concern. However, the underachievement of the American male population is. Hoff Sommers quotes education writer Paul Whitmire and literacy expert William Brozo in her book, The War Against Boys, “The global economic race we read so much about—the marathon to produce the most educated workforce and therefore the most prosperous nation—really comes down to a calculation: Whichever nation solves these ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.”

I read a few articles by self-described “freedom feminist” Sommers years ago, when she certainly seemed less confrontational than she later became. I don’t know whether she genuinely went off the rails or decided that taking a fairly unique “libertarian feminist-against-feminism” position would raise her profile and earn her more attention, but I do know that her current diatribes are perfect examples of what is wrong with American argumentation generally.

These days, significant numbers of activists on both the left and right avoid honest discussion by creating straw men, whose arguments are much easier to triumphantly dismiss and disparage than the more considered points raised by real people.

The straw man argument is an age-old tactic in which a debater purports to address an opponent’s argument while actually attacking a position that the opponent didn’t take.

Sommers has created a “straw woman,” dubbed “gender feminist,” who is out to dominate men. The women she invents and then battles are man-haters, not really interested in equal treatment or equal pay for the same work, but in beating down the male of the species.

I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we might find some women like that, but most of us who consider ourselves feminists–and a lot who don’t use the label but believe they should be compensated fairly and not subjected to sexual harassment–are hardly the man-haters Sommer attacks. We have husbands and sons and male friends–and no interest in inverting the current distribution of privilege to diminish them. We want parity, not dominance.

Sommers is hardly the first to paint feminists as radically unfeminine and anti-male. When I was younger, feminists were the butt of jokes about women who didn’t shave their legs, or who couldn’t get a date. (The potency of those descriptions is why many women still shun the label.)

It is much easier to attack–and demolish–caricatures than to engage with the real positions of people with whom you disagree. So we see people on the right claiming that advocates of civil rights for LGBTQ folks want to persecute Christians, or that civil libertarians concerned about due process or critical of police brutality are “pro criminal.” We see people on the left dismissing every objection to a stronger social safety net, or for a different approach to taxation, as evidencing either a lack of human compassion or (in legislators)  corrupt obedience to their donors.

Arguments made by the straw man (or woman) of our imagination are, obviously, much easier to refute than the actual points being raised. But engaging in the tactic in order to avoid confronting the real-life–and invariably more complex– issues at hand is both cowardly and dishonest.

Deliberative democracy it isn’t.


  1. Our nation has become so polarized and the conversation too often hateful. Donald Trump has coarsened and worsened our national conversation but Rush Limbaugh and others started the trend decades ago. While Limbaugh’s politics didn’t appeal to me, I was much more concerned about the coarse, insulting way he expressed his opinions and that some acquaintances I considered ‘nice’ people thought him entertaining.

    I’ve ‘friended’ some right wing folks on Facebook to try to understand their thinking and sometimes contribute factual information to refute some of the more outrageous ‘straw men’ and hoax information posted there. Having a substantive, respectful conversation with these folks is impossible. The personal insults, name-calling, and coarse language are nearly always their first responses. Then when I looked at some left wing Facebook sites, many of those commenters used the same coarse, insulting, non-substantive language. I’ve had my fill of it.

    It’s sad we’re becoming more “pluribus” and less “unum”.

  2. I agree so much again with everything that was said here. My biggest frustration in this current climate of political thought is the fact that people can no longer have a discussion on differences. Its always about “are you with me or against me”. It reminds me of a game of tug -of-war who is going to win. The problem is there is no winning only losing. I had the opportunity of engaging in a discussion on arming teachers in the schools at my gym yesterday morning. What was so encouraging was the fact that it started with a few teachers and expanded with every woman in the locker room. I think what I took away from what happened is that most of us want the “conversation” we are concerned, we are frighten for our children and we are not sure where this is all going to end up. We want a healthy debate not an angry mob. I think most American’s are tired of the anger and want it to stop. I am from the Philadelphia area and during the Philadelphia Eagles run for the Super Bowl people kept saying this is so much fun. We were all looking for an escape from the media, from the WH and from all the fighting. I think we now are at the point where we cannot escape what is happening and we want dialogue!!

  3. Theresa, Nancy Papas and others; it has been my personal experience since before Trump, the only “rational reason” Republicans have given me for supporting the current Republican party is that they are staunch Republicans. That appears to be the only “reason” Congress can offer for allowing the “deconstruction” of United States government and democracy. This is true of woman and men; but on the personal rather than government level, I must say the women are simply going along with their menfolk and not thinking for themselves.

  4. Sadly, there is a major cultural problem driving this, called patriarchy. That may sound obvious, but I’m not saying what you are thinking. Patriarchy may in some ways be worse for men than for women.

    Women are claiming power at unprecedented rates. And this is a good, a very good, thing. But men aren’t able to claim the feminine because the patiarchy doesnt allow it. Again, what you are likely thinking about “the feminine” is a poor imitation of what the feminine is really about, and it is where feminists have really missed the boat.

    Stick with me here because I’m going to apparently jump way off topic. People sometimes have strokes that affect the part of the brain called the amygdala. When this happens, they are completely disabled. The amygdala is the center of emotional processing. But wait, isn’t being emotional what the patriarchy has always thrown at women as the reason they are ineffective and irrational?

    It turns out that we make all, yes, all of our decisions about what to do emotionally. Recent research used brain imaging that shows brain activity has confirmed this. They put subjects in the scanner and gave them scenarios in which they had to make a thoughtful decision. After they made the decision they were to push the button and then explain how they had made their decision.

    Invariably, the amygdala lit up until just before they pushed the button, and then the prefrontal lobes where we do rational processing lit up. We decide what we will do emotionally and then rationalize why we decided.

    The hopefully obvious conclusion for men is that the emotional crippling that patriarchy gives them doesnt just stunt their relationships, it stunts their ability to make appropriate decisions, and even worse, since our decision making is based on our understanding of our world, their ability to fully understand. Fortunately, many men these days are much more in touch with their feelings than men used to be, probably including most if not all of the men on this list.

    But feminism, in not reclaiming the feminine, not reclaiming our right to be emotionally cognizant, has done neither women nor men any favors.

    I expect this will set off a shit storm, but this needs to be said.

  5. Yes, straw men and straw women have achieved parity in that they are both used as foils for mostly specious “arguments”. The “yeah, but…” responses to opposing points gets us less than nowhere. Then there is the true believer syndrome which extinguishes all rational discussions no matter whether straw men exist or not.

    Patriarchy is dying an ignoble death; just what it deserves. I’ve written several columns pointing out how women, sans testosterone, are putting rational thought and real values back into our political environment. More women than ever before are becoming active in politics because most of them who are see the purity of democracy rather than just another boy’s club that looks for loopholes and the favoring of special interests.

    The women will save us.

  6. This is the proper blog for me to repeat my favorite Dillys Lainge quote; “Women receive the insults of men with tolerance; having been bitten in the nipple by their toothless gums.”

  7. There was a time when human culture was the product of social interaction. We learned how people that we deemed like us generally behave in certain circumstances. Culture over time saves us from having to figure out for each interaction how to behave “normally”, “as expected”, like others like us.

    Now it’s tainted by non social exposure to entertainers much of the time. By non social I mean one way communications. Hearing, not talking; watching, not being seen. Being instructed, not actively questioning.

    It matters. It affects how we interact with others. We become a combination of human social animal and robot, programmed by others.

    That has taken a toll on the quality of social interactions including how we debate. It naturally favors extremism. I’m all and only right and you’re all and only wrong. There is only black and white.

    Can society as we know it and democracy even survive this re-enculturation?

    I honestly don’t know and can’t even guess.

  8. Shelia said it all when she suggested that women want parity, not dominance, and that should work out as between the sexes, but when the issues to be confronted are between Democrats and Republicans, that is a different story. I confess to giving short shrift to the arguments of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and the Limbaugh and Trump crowds, having been exposed to their lines over the years and finding them contrary to reason. I frankly think it would require a herculean effort on my part to sit with such people, hear their arguments, and not walk away in the midst of one of their diatribes. I admit to bringing bias to the table, but how else is one to react when listening to such short-sighted drivel?

    However, I’ll try, since I understand that nothing gets done without compromise, not even our Constitution, itself a product of compromise among southern slaveholders and Yankee shipbuilders. We have enormous issues confronting us both domestic and foreign that are going unaddressed while we engage in tit for tat petty tabloid matters; i.e., we have by far the world’s greatest trade deficit, the Chinese have bullet trains while we talk about them, ongoing wage inequality is weakening demand (the sole arbiter of economic growth), guns, Russian attempts to destroy our democracy etc.

    Every day we wait to solve these problems is a day we fall further behind a new and very competitive world of EU and Chinese economies (and soon even those of emerging economies) who are not hampered with such nonsense. American “exceptionalism,” if it ever existed, is over. Our bullying days are gone. (Trump, take note.) We have much work to do if we are to stop or even slow our descent into Third World status, so I will (if grudgingly) remain open to compromise. We need to talk to one another before such an opportunity is foreclosed by events and we pull a Roman 476, and the time to talk is today.

  9. The author of the article you link to ends with >> And how have we allowed our society to become so badly rigged against boys?”<<> We are turning against boys and forgetting a simple truth: that the energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring of normal, decent males is responsible for much of what is right in the world.<<> I read a few articles by self-described “freedom feminist” Sommers years ago, when she certainly seemed less confrontational than she later became. I don’t know whether she genuinely went off the rails or decided that taking a fairly unique “libertarian feminist-against-feminism” position would raise her profile and earn her more attention, but I do know that her current diatribes are perfect examples of what is wrong with American argumentation generally.<< Perhaps since Sommers has been with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank since 1997 accounts for the change in tone.

    Anyway, there are differences between the genders, I cannot think of a single mass murder where the shooter was a female.

  10. I remember the bra burners of the feminist wave and wished that I could have joined in but I was stacked with a chest that required support. My first two spouses were not feminists but by gawd, I wasn’t going to get married again until or unless I found one. I did but he wasn’t American so there’s that and it took me 13 yrs to find him and honestly, I wasn’t even looking.

    Men are such cry babies that have to have the upper hand all of the damn time and we women let them until we don’t anymore because they flip out on us. I have seen some emotional women in my life but the men that are emotional can stop me in my tracks. I either melt with empathy for them or run in fear. There is so little in between in most men raised in America anymore. And as far as governing is concerned, we must have a female majority in both houses of Congress because the men are failing this country and doing it rapidly. I am hopeful that the women of the X and Y and millennial generations will save us from ourselves with their educated and emotional bias. I’m not a man hater but seriously, look at their leadership lately, I think we women need to step up!

  11. Gov. Kasich, R-Ohio, sees third party??

    Wrong! Fake News! Stick with two-party system until we get rid of Trump. Votes to other parties will dilute your vote and virtually guarantee Trump/Pious Pence/King Kong 2nd term.

    Pious Pence supports surgical reversing of circumcisions, suggests surgeons dissect earlobes for new foreskins, and suggests six-shooters, holsters and cartridge belts around the waist of selected schoolmarms.

    Fire Trump/Pence and Congress NOW by sticking with the Democrats in 2018 and in 2020. Win this struggle and talk about third party in 2021 when Trump/Pence blips will be off radar. Paraphrasing Trump: “LOCK HIM UP, DRAIN THE SWAMP!.”

  12. Bravo Sheila, bravo!!!

    Meanwhile, all the things that need to be discussed right now and discussed rationally without rancor remain unaddressed as this swill continues to drag the entire country down to where it’s just about below sea level from coast to coast in terms of political discourse. We’re in one hell of a mess and it’s not going get any better until we as a country and as a people can get down to brass tacks and intelligently discuss things that need to be done for the good of all Americans including those that seem a hell bent on preventing such conversations.

    How little they know about how this country works and how it was created. How little do they know how much they have sabotaged their own futures by doing this incredibly stupid stuff. I’m just concerned that the brains of the thinking people across this country such as those that populate this blog on a regular basis are going to either catch fire or explode as a result of this mind bending stupidity before we can get to pay dirt in regard to resolving anything remotely close to being workable public policy on any level and on any subject.

  13. The basic problem is that females are superior and have, willingly or not, been subdued for centuries. My observation is that in the 19th century, when science finally confirmed that there was such a thing as an egg, the view of the female’s role in the creative process changed profoundly. Before that for centuries, and in many religions and ceremonies even today, men were simply planting seeds in fertile or non fertile soil. Woman moved from fertile soil to an essential participant in the process. The Catholic Church declared that Mary was conceived without original sin. Womankind perked up and began assuming an entirely different perspective on not just procreation but the relationship of the genders. We are still working that relationship out. Many men are still pissed off and they are pigs.

  14. In this matter, being a Male, I sit and observe. My wife is one of my most revered Feminists – and I am sure if she were well right now and able sit and read your note – she could only agree. I have to say some of the smartest Women I have ever met in my life were Women of education – who not only taught but were able to at all levels, and damn sure had their feet planted in deliberate democracy of the self and for others. Kudos, Ms. Kennedy. Well addressed and well written – thinking material.

  15. One of the oldest scriptures found at Sinai said “the wickedness of a man is better than the goodness of a woman”! We saw this play out on a national level in the 2016 Potus race! Women are not a sub set of humans to cow tow to men. What ever a woman can accomplish should be unmolested by the dominance of men!

  16. I was born and raised a Republican. There was a time when I was positive I would never vote for a Democrat. However, I have always been a big fan of witty, intelligent people who seem capable of seeing most sides of major situations. That’s why … in 1960 … the Democrats reeled me in with John F. Kennedy. I don’t care what anyone else thought, JFK was my man.

    I later realized that it’s extremely difficult to get people to change parties. People seem reluctant to make the switch. It appears to take an uncertain amount of hero worship. Reagan got a lot of Democrats to switch. Obama got a lot of African Americans to vote. Beyond that, voters in both parties are thoroughly entrenched in potty-mouthed activities. The Republicans hate the Democrats; the Democrats hate the Republicans. They think.

    I think it’s a strong possibility that our next President will be a woman strongly supported by those fearless high schoolers from Florida.

  17. Paul,

    “I think it’s a strong possibility that our next President will be a woman strongly supported by those fearless high schoolers from Florida.”

    I hope you’re right.

  18. As a matter of fact, the other day I had a high ranking Republican friend taste my pie while it was still in the oven. He liked it. And was looking forward to a bigger bite after it was out of the oven.

  19. I find it interesting that feminists always say of men, you should not need to have a wife or daughter to respect women, you should respect hem because they are human. But to point out they couldn’t possibly be man haters, feminists fall back on “b-b-but we have fathers, brothers husbands, sons!” Every. Single. Time. I have never once read a feminist rebuttal to being “man haters” (and I don’t think many are to be honest) where the feminist said “men deserve to not be hated because they are fellow human beings.” Not once. Ever. It is, without exception “fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.” Apparently, men are only worthy of respect and consideration to feminists when there is a personal relationship at play, the very thing they crucify men for.

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