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People are Different, Film at 11

August 8th, 2008 · 5 Comments

I’d meant to say something in passing about Kerry Howley’s righteous smackdown of noted telepath Melissa Lafsky, who had clucked her tongue at Kerry and other ova donors who won’t fess up to the deep emotional trauma they must have experienced as a result of the process. Favorite graf:

It’s worth pointing out that anyone who repeatedly lumps together rape, abortion, and IVF either thinks very little of the line between coercion and autonomy, or thinks very little, full stop. I would never dream of writing a Lafskian blog post telling women who have been raped how they all ought to feel about it. But I do understand that it will always be more subversive, more difficult, to admit a lack of emotion in these circumstances rather than an excess. To say: I had an abortion, and felt nothing; I sold my eggs, and enjoyed it; I was a sex worker, and loved it. Break taboos, and the world wants contrition. Didn’t you receive your emotional marching orders?

But Lafsky’s piece did remind me slightly of a debate about abortion I had a while back with a much better thinker and writer, Dana Goldstein of the Center for American Progress. The short version was this: I took the position that Democrats shouldn’t concede that, while it must remain legal, abortion is some moral blight to be minimized as much as possible—though obviously it’s preferable on many other grounds if people are able to take precautions against unwanted pregnancy in advance: They should bite the bullet and defend the proposition that fetuses aren’t persons.  Dana and many of the commenters thought that this cam across as dismissive of the experience of the many women who do agonize over the decision to terminate a pregnancy. And maybe there’s something to that—though I’m not persuaded that the compassionate move here is to “validate” those feelings by affirming that yes, indeed, they’re right to feel guilty and conflicted… especially if it’s not true.

But I do think this points to what may be in the background of Lafsky’s reaction. People react differently to different experiences. An article a few years back chronicled a case in which Larry Lessig argued a suit against an elite boy’s school whose music director had, years apart, molested both Lessig and his client. Lessig seems to have moved on without very serious trauma to become one of the country’s most well-known legal academics; his client was destroyed by the experience, and clearly still lived in the shadow of what he’d suffered as a boy decades earlier. Now, clearly, the last thing you want to say here is that since Lessig turned out fine, then if his client suffered any surplus psychological injury, well, that’s on him. Lessig’s resilience in no way excuses his abuser, nor should it be a source of shame to anyone who coped less well with a similar abuse.

And yet, in practice, that’s probably how it works. If person A shrugged off the same experience that traumatized person B, some people are going to wonder what B’s problem is—why can’t they just get over it? And especially in cases where the parties are adults and the experience in question was a voluntary one, it may not help much to say “well, people are different” because this still locates the source of the difference in the two individuals. And we might reasonably fear that the result will be to trivialize B’s pain (“see, you’re overreacting!”) or even to compound it with feelings of guilt (“what’s wrong with me that I can’t just move on like A did?”).  One response to that worry is to even things out by insisting that there really is One Objectively Correct emotional response, and anyone who fails to register it is either in denial or somehow broken.

Is this a nice and compassionate thing to say? Maybe.  But it’s also obviously wrong.  Arguably, it’s a special case of a broader attitude in the air that suffering confers moral authority: Whoever’s in the most pain must be right. But in this instance, I rather doubt there’s any “right” about it. Put it this way, some people are allergic to shellfish. They shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it doesn’t mean anyone else is obligated to feign a seizure after every bite of lobster.

Tags: Sexual Politics · Sociology



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jake // Aug 8, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    But I do think this points to what may be in the background of Lafsky’s reaction. People react differently to different experiences.

    I’m reminded of a book called The Choices We Made: Twenty-Five Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion, which details the responses, from extreme and lifelong guilt to relative harmony, faced by those who had abortions. It seems pleasantly honest in comparison to much of the rhetoric surrounding the issue.

    On a more abstract level, the question is about what psychologists call “resilience,” and the New York Times wrote about the phenomenon in A Question of Resilience, which discusses why some people, like Lessig, move with what appears to be ease past difficult events, while others do not. It focuses on a genetic variation, implying perhaps undue power, but it’s nonetheless an interesting discussion of the people who often get left out of the debate: the “person A [who] shrugged off the same experience that traumatized person B.” To deal with one of your other examples, the blog Confessions of a College Call Girl has some posts dealing with past problems that the writer haven’t apparently hindered the writer in her career.

  • 2 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Aug 8, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    There is a related issue here, well documented in the psychology literature. If, in the aftermath of potentially traumatic events, everyone is told that it is “normal” or “natural” to have a really severe emotional and psychological reaction then it increases the likelihood more people will *have* that reaction than would have without any such intervention.

  • 3 Matt z // Aug 9, 2008 at 3:54 am

    Don’t want to sound pedantic but Dana works at the American prospect now

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Aug 9, 2008 at 5:28 am

    Sorry, *then* of CAP.

  • 5 Luka // Aug 11, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    This is a really nice post, Julian. It’s sometimes (often?) difficult, I imagine, to know when situations are of the kind you’re focusing on here. That is, I imagine that you’d agree that there are some situations in which it is appropriate to have an intense emotional response (one way or the other) and others where it isn’t. And then there are those in which there’s just no fact of the matter as to how intense of an emotional response is appropriate (which is how I take you to be thinking of the kind you’re focusing on here). I’d guess there are interesting things to say about how we might correctly identify actual cases as being in one of those three categories.

    It does seem that many people take it to be a given that if it’s common to feel intensely sad (or happy) in some kind of situation, then that emotional response is the most appropriate. I take what you’ve written here to give us reason to think otherwise.

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