I hope Dianne Feinstein is emotional about torture

Speaker of the House John Boehner

Speaker of the House John Boehner

When was the last time you heard a male politician described as “emotional”?

Discussions about John Boehner’s propensity for crying notwithstanding, it’s pretty rare that you will hear much discussion about a male leader’s emotions. “Emotional” is a heavily gendered term that isn’t used to invoke the possibility that feelings may have a legitimate place in a debate, but rather to discredit someone who’s supposedly not acting rationally. Even when Boehner’s crying is discussed, it’s usually played for laughs or viewed with confusion (its own problem), but not to impugn his ability to lead a party or make policy. But there’s been a firestorm this week over former CIA director Michael Hayden’s lobbing the term at Dianne Feinstein. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker writes:

Who gets “emotional” about torture—or, rather, what is the proper emotional response to a history of torture and lies? On Fox News, on Sunday morning, Chris Wallace asked Michael Hayden, the former director of the C.I.A., about a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sixty-three hundred pages long, that “says the C.I.A. misled the public about the severity and the success of the enhanced interrogation program.” Hayden’s first response was to talk about the feelings of Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the committee, citing an article by David Ignatius: “He said Senator Feinstein wanted a report so scathing that it would ‘ensure that an un-American brutal program of detention and interrogation would never again be considered or permitted.’ ”

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.“Deep emotional feelings,” on the part of a woman like Feinstein, are apparently dizzying, especially when it comes to things like our integrity as a nation.

Hayden is falling back on tired gender tropes in a desperate attempt to detract from the fact that the CIA finally could get a tiny taste of the accountability it deserves for US-sponsored torture programs.

Aside from the fact that Hayden is trying to undermine the torture report by likening it to a weeping preteen girl’s diary, Davidson also links it with feminization of opponents of torture:

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.

The cartoon is of the clear-headed torturer who has put tenderness aside for the sake of country, against the squeamish, sensitive, can’t-handle-the-truth doubters. The supposed contrast is between focussed, rational realism and a tendency to faint. (Men and women can be put in either role, as in “Zero Dark Thirty.”) But fear and a desire to punish, which disabled the judgments of many in the government after 9/11, are emotions, too, and even harder to control than, say, mercy. So is a fascination with one’s own power to protect or, less charitably, one’s self-imagined ruthlessness. So is a tendency to be charmed by dark sides. One can argue that those who turn to the law or a moral code, in moments of crisis, can be the least flushed by feeling. That is not to make a case against inserting feeling into politics: righteous indignation and kindness can anchor, rather than discombobulate. It might be most accurate to say that various emotions serve us differently. They wake us up, and, when they do, in what can be an outraged, bleary-eyed moment, we should be careful about what we reach for.

And if the intelligence community thinks that the controversy over our legacy of torture is just the result of some silly girlish feelings, then we haven’t even begun to deal with the consequences of those years.

Hayden’s statement also raises the question of how emotions should come into play in making policy decisions. As Davidson rightly points out, emotions are involved on all sides, and in the heated aftermath of 9/11, it’s ridiculous to assume that fear and anger were not involved in the support of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Rather than pretending emotions are absent from these decisions, we should fully examine them. Isn’t torture something worth getting emotional about? One can make an unemotional argument against employing torture. Plenty of experts agree that torture just plain doesn’t work. But it’s also abhorrent. When I think about torture the US has carried out, I feel disgusted. Sad. Ashamed. Angry. Betrayed. If the actions of our government elicit that visceral response, doesn’t that say something about whether it’s a wise policy?

Instead of throwing around emotions as a way to make women seem unstable or incapable of making sound decisions, we should take an honest look at how both men’s and women’s emotions are impacting our policies and tune into them when they can help us make the right choices.

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