This weekend brought us a particularly shocking example of how different conservatives can be from progressives. His Democrat opponents and the left were outraged at a US Republican congressman’s insensitive comment that victims of “legitimate” rape do not get pregnant. Here’s what he said:
“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Todd Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not on the [unborn] child”.
To progressives, greens and those on the left this statement is almost incomprehensibly vile, if not downright wicked. What we as progressives need to get to grips with however, is how in the Conservative mind the comment makes perfect sense. And if we don’t understand this, we cannot tackle the roots of its power in the public’s mind.
The comment invokes several key conservative frames, which conservative voters as well as many people in “the middle” are likely to share with conservative politicians. These framings are arguably nonsense from a scientific perspective and from the viewpoint of progressive logic, but they make perfect sense in what cognitive linguist George Lakoff would call conservative moral folk theory.
Primarily, Akin invokes the frame of individual responsibility. This is a prime precept of conservative morality. Conservative logic goes that things happen either because of wilful individual human action, or just luck/fate. This explains both parts of the statement: “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume maybe that didn’t work or something”. The two options his moral makeup gives him are chance (“didn’t work or something”) and individual action “a responsible female body” or failure “an irresponsible female body”. The implication is that the female body might fail to not get pregnant because of lack of self-discipline and lack of effort. As you can see from my re-interpretation of Lakoff’s Authoritarian and Nurturing moral priorities, individual responsibility, self-discipline and moral strengths are inherent precepts of conservative morality, and operate even if the mind is not consciously aware of them. The unconscious emotional mind is an impressionable and simple creature compared to the rational mind: but hugely powerful. The inspirational and emotive conservative fallacy of the American Dream, that anyone can become President of the United States if they really put their mind to it, is just the other end of the same unconscious frame: that a woman can control whatever goes on in her own body if she really puts her mind to it. This idea doesn’t make any rational sense, but to the unconscious emotional mind it is very pervasive.
The offensiveness of the idea of “legitimate” rape is even more offensive than it at first seems, because since it implies that if the experience is bad enough a properly functioning female body will have the willpower to responsibly “shut down” the possibility of pregnancy, then the inverse implication is that if the woman gets pregnant anyway then she didn’t have the willpower to react sufficiently against the intruder, because she secretly enjoyed it.
In the same way that conservative moral folk theory fails to understand some of the key things that progressives appreciate: the influence of history and society, the theory also fails to understand science. Staunch conservatives, operating subconsciously with this logic, will not consider that the female body is a biological community of related but distinct processes, any more than conservatives consider that society is a community of interconnected people. The conservative folk fantasy anthropomorphises the female body, making sense of it in the only way that it can, as an individual actor thoroughly responsible for its own actions and inactions. And Akin is not the first conservative to propose seemingly ludicrous ideas about rape and fertility. In 1995, Republican Rep. Henry Aldridge told the House Appropriations committee: “The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever”. And here are five more similarly bizarre beliefs about pregnancy and rape. These statements are not freak: they illustrate the point that George Lakoff and the expert on emotional intelligence Drew Westen make time and time again, that the mental moral schema comes first, and facts are made to fit it, not the other way around.
In the same way that, regardless of scientific facts, Akin anthropomorphises a woman’s unconscious body functions, he anthropomorphises an unfertilised egg as “the [unborn] child”, explaining his objection to the morning-after pill as “a form of abortion”
Even his comment about punishment makes sense in the conservative world: point number five on my list of Authoritarian morality reads “Protect the good…. Condemn the bad”. To this logic therefore, abortion is especially wrong because it punishes an innocent (someone more innocent than the woman, indeed), even though progressives and doctors would largely not accept that the foetus is even a person capable of experiencing punishment. The frame simply makes no sense to progressives, but to conservatives it is a high perversion of their moral values. And unlike progressives, who will tend to judge events more by their consequences, conservatives can be more easily offended by “in principle” breaches of their moral code. Therefore punishing the innocent is always wrong and letting the guilty go unpunished is always wrong. Foetuses are babies and babies are very innocent and abortion is killing and killing is punishing (that’s why they have the death penalty) so therefore aborting (killing) foetuses (babies) is as morally offensive as letting a mass-murderer go free. The conservative logic is impeccable, comprehensive, and boxes itself into a corner. This type of cascade of moral metaphors and erroneous connections is the key fabric of the conservative moral mind.
The cause of Akin’s statement is a scientific misconception, yes, offensive and ignorant to us, yes, but it is rooted in unconscious moral frameworks and metaphors in which Akin and fellow conservatives are highly fluent and therefore highly persuasive. It is these moral metaphors, not individual statements, individual scientific misperceptions or even individual people, that need to be the future focus of progressives in the struggle for people’s hearts, and minds.