A while ago Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, sent me a copy of his article entitled “Understanding Beliefs”. The political psychological problem discussed in this article will be the heartbeat heard in the background of the Women’s Leadership Challenge. The affluent, successful and well educated women participating in the If Women Ruled the World (IWRTW) documentary all suffered from a common, unconscious and politically pernicious form of self deception. Quoting Jervis, “In difficult political and psychological situations, reality appraisal, far from pointing a way out, can be a menace to the person if the reality it points to is too painful to contemplate.” The complexity of the world requires us to create in our minds a theory, a belief, a model, if you will, of what the world is like. The mind filters the information or buzzing confusion seen and heard by our eyes and ears and then interprets it in a way that will fit our mind’s beliefs. (see Your Deceptive Mind)
Political disagreement about cultural beliefs is essentially formalized “civil” warfare between groups with conflicting mental models of the world. Watch Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. Some would argue that, in the United States, civility no longer plays a part in these conflicts. For an example from the social sciences read the 1998 article in Foreign Affairs by Francis Fukuyama entitled “Women and the Evolution of World Politics.” Then read the response to Fukuyama’s article written by Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, et al. Ehrenreich and Pollitt are resisting a theory, mental model, or belief that threatens to destroy the foundation of meaning for their lives. It is just one example of, not a religious, but a “Belief War” within the social sciences. Another example of mental models in conflict is Edward O Wilson’s concept of sociobiology and the resistance to it by liberal art academics.
Radical cultural change is very, very stressful for most people. Abrupt cultural change blows bellows of hot air onto the embers of our primitive brain, overwhelming the cool, calm deliberative thoughts of the prefrontal cortex. China has gone through four cultural revolutions in less than seventy years. The first was World War II, secondly the Communist takeover after World War II, thirdly the “Cultural Revolution” during the 1960s and the fourth revolution started with China’s conversion to a market economy in the 1980s. For an idea of what those cultural changes were like I recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. The tragic result of these four revolutions is China’s female suicide rate. China used to be the only nation in the world where women killed themselves more than men. It was a sentinel event in world history. It is not a good omen of things to come in our ever more rapidly changing global village. China is no longer the only nation where exceptionally large numbers of women believe life isn’t worth living.
The point of ACT II is that the IWRTW dinner guests who dominated the dinner conversation believed they had a clear, rational understanding of what defined female leadership. Their lives, their devotion to breaking through the glass ceiling holding women down from leadership positions that men covet, these actions defined female leadership. Any woman who wasn’t a Supreme Court justice, a General, a world famous author, a Prime Minister, etc probably wasn’t a significant leader in their mind’s eye or the eye of the producer for that matter. As a result of their beliefs, based upon their personal experience, they defined the women’s issues of greatest importance for them and assumed they were of greatest importance for the the majority of American women and the world’s women. Hopefully you can see that they possibly were wrong. They did not address the daunting problems caused by our dysfunctional federal government The Rule of Nobody And they didn’t discuss the greatest injustice of the 21st century affecting women. Sheryl WuDunn: Our Century’s Greatest Injustice
Next time we’ll discuss an imaginative way to avoid parochial ways of thinking and stay focused on truly global issues.