Is sexism playing a role in efforts to keep hidden the details of the CIA’s secretive and harsh interrogation programs? That’s the conclusion of the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, who denounces Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, for trying to discredit Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s criticisms of the programs by saying the senator is too “emotional.” Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that she wants to declassify a Senate report on the CIA’s secretive interrogation programs to “ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.” Hayden scoffed at this to Chris Wallace on Fox News this weekend, saying:
Now, that sentence, that motivation for the report, Chris, may show deep emotional feeling on part of the senator. But I don’t think it leads you to an objective report.
Contrasting thoughtless lady emotions with hardened male objectivity: It’s not just a trick your ex-boyfriend used to win arguments. As Davidson points out, this notion that emotions are a bad thing or that they cloud judgment is applied very selectively and quite unfairly. She writes:
There are really two issues here: One is the reflexive tendency to disparage or dismiss a woman in politics (or in business, or anywhere) with a remark about her supposed susceptibility to emotion. The other is the way a certain femininity—the wilting kind—is ascribed to those who doubt that torture is good for America.
But, as she notes, torture itself is just as much about favoring emotion over objective rationality, writing that “fear and a desire to punish, which disabled the judgments of many in the government after 9/11, are emotions, too.” She adds, “So is a fascination with one’s own power to protect or, less charitably, one’s self-imagined ruthlessness.” The rule of law that anti-torture advocates insist on is, in fact, an attempt to minimize the role that overly emotional reactions can play when it comes to fighting terrorism.
Davidson is onto something with her contempt for the way that liberals are accused of suffering “silly girlish feelings,” whereas security-state hawks are seen as somehow more objective. Preliminary scientific research actually suggests that it’s the other way around. As Chris Mooney of Mother Jones reports, psychology researcher John Hibbing has found that, on issues of security and safety, conservatives are more likely to be manipulated by their emotions than liberals:
One of Hibbing’s pioneering papers on the physiology of ideology was published in none other than the top-tier journal Science in 2008. It found that political partisans on the left and the right differ significantly in their bodily responses to threatening stimuli. For example, startle reflexes after hearing a loud noise were stronger in conservatives. And after being shown a variety of threatening images (“a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” according to the study), conservatives also exhibited greater skin conductance—a moistening of the sweat glands that indicates arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Perhaps, as Mooney argues, people adopt “tough, defensive, and aversive ideologies” to compensate for being more fearful and reactive. Maybe it’s not Feinstein who is a victim of her emotions here, but the people whose fear of terrorism has led them to discard basic decency and rule of law to push for brutal interrogation programs.