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Why the need for consensus?

By Petra Bueskens - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2012


In the nineteen eighties academic psychologist Carol Gilligan identified women’s “ethic of care”.  Her research found that while boys and men tended to make moral decisions based on ethical fundamentals (such as the right to life or property) girls and women tended to think more contextually, in terms of the specific circumstances and relationships of those involved.  Girls’ and womens’ overriding ethic was the preservation of relationships, rather than adherence to rights and rules.

Eleanor Maccoby developed our understanding of gender - at least in modern patriarchal societies - in relation to same-sex peer groups in childhood.  Her empirical research on gender segregation in play demonstrated that whereas boys play in larger groups and establish a clear hierarchy of individuals based on competition (rights and rules); girls prefer smaller groups based on intimacy, consensus and mutual identification (relationships). Importantly, if a girl is cast out it’s not because she’s not winning it’s because she’s not agreeing.


What does all this have to do with Melinda Tankard Reist and the current cyber controversy being fought out in various opinion pieces in the Australian media and blogosphere? In short, it provides an explanation – an old one, but a good one – for the difficulties many women have with political, and perhaps especially personal, differences.  It helps explain how it is that “MTR” has been recently cast out of feminism by the “top girls” in the group.

As we have seen a number of high profile feminist writers such as Leslie Cannold, Eva Cox and Anne Summers declare that Tankard Reist is “not a feminist” given her putative anti-abortion/pro-life stance (as I understand it Tankard Reist is not against a woman’s right to choose, she simply has critical concerns about the context and consequences of abortion for women).

Conversely, the publishers of Spinifex Press Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein have declared that she is an “authentic feminist” and others such as Cathy Sherry, Miranda Devine, Claire Bongiorno, Emma Rush, and Lyn Bender have similarly come to her defence.


As Cathy Sherry said in her recent opinion piece on this matter, “I have long considered myself a feminist and been disturbed by the parts of the sisterhood who operate like a nasty in-group in primary school. You can’t be our friend because you don’t wear the right pink dress. You can’t be our friend unless you toe the approved party-line on abortion, childcare or sexual clothing.”

It seems that there is an implicit assumption among women - and feminists no less - that we have to agree with each other in order to be “in the group” and, further to this, that this agreement must form a tight boundary around a whole constellation of issues and beliefs. In other words, supporting one kind of politics necessarily commits us to other related beliefs and lifestyle practices.  Anything less and we risk censure, exclusion, hostility or charges of hypocrisy.


Here’s a few typical examples of the believing/doing nexus: liberal feminist – pro-choice, supports and uses childcare to maintain part-time career, heterosexual and married. Ecofeminist – pro-choice and pro-homebirth, practices attachment parenting, critical of childcare and market work, has vege garden, works in local community centre, a single mum. Radical feminist – lesbian separatist, anti “PIV” (eliminating the need for abortions), no children, a vegetarian, supports Nordic model of criminalising the buyers of prostituted women, concerned about protecting women only spaces. Third wave feminist – identifies as bisexual and reads queer theory, doesn’t think much about children or childcare because that’s at least ten years off, pro-choice, “sex-positive” and organising the upcoming SlutWalk.  There are, of course, many more feminist stereotypes but you get my point. 

Those who are clearly in one camp make sense both to their peers and their adversaries, but those who don’t – and Tankard Reist fits quite clearly here with her Christian background and her feminist foreground - are confusing at best and suspect at worst.  But the problem here is not the complexity of those who combine multiple (sometimes conflicting) perspectives, but adversarial thinking and the “group think” that lurks behind it.  It is the latter that produces insiders and outsiders, and therefore conflict and exclusion.

As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his TED talk “On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives”, it is our inability to listen to those whose perspectives differ radically from our own that impoverishes the moral terrain. It is often by listening to “the other” – in this instance liberals listening to conservatives (or listening to people they are labelling conservative) – that our horizon of truth is expanded.

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About the Author

Petra Bueskens is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. Prior to this she lectured in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University (2002-2009). Since 2009 she has been working as a Psychotherapist in private practice. She is the editor of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia and the founder of PPMD Therapy. Her research interests include motherhood, feminism, sexuality, social theory, psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory and practice. She has published articles on all these subjects in both scholarly and popular fora. Her edited book Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives was published by Demeter Press in 2014.

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