THE BLOG
11/11/2010 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Power, Politics, and Polarization

Fed up with the polarization and posturing in Congress, many people opted to vote out the old and vote in the new in hopes of changing the game. Voting out women, however, is not going to help solve these problems. This is the first decline in women represented in Congress since 1978. Scores of countries have a higher proportion of women in their national legislature than the pathetic 17 percent in the US Congress. Political sexism continues to be a problem for women seeking office, even if adolescent in form, such as the outpourings of Rush Limbaugh who played "Ding-Dong! The witch is dead" on his radio show to celebrate Nancy Pelosi's demotion from Speaker of the House. Nice job of modeling bullying and misogyny for everyone, Rush.

The problem with fewer women in Congress is not just a woman's issue. It's a man's issue as well because it leaves the Congress comprised largely of men, and perfect conditions for even more posturing. We saw what happened on the male-dominated Wall Street, where there are few women's voices to temper a testosterone-driven culture. Boys always behave better when girls are around.

At a time when finesse and relational skills of collaboration are most needed, skills developed more in women on the average than men, we find ourselves with a Congress ill-equipped to navigate these waters, and many men at a loss as to what to do. We teach our men and boys to dominate, not cooperate. Men often deal with this deficit in the skills of cooperation by posturing, becoming more aggressive and unbending, as a way to protect themselves and to deflect attention should someone spot any hint of hesitation or uncertainty. Attack the other guy and let them feel the dreaded feelings of vulnerability. As the well known sports metaphor teaches, the best defense is a good offense. When someone forces their vulnerability onto someone else as a way of drawing attention away from their own feelings of insecurity, I call it the gladiator defense.

When the gladiator attacks, he attacks a hidden part of himself: Eliot Spitzer, crusader against prostitution rings, gets caught having spent a fortune on a prostitute; Reverend Ted Haggerty, defender of the faith, denounces gay rights only to see his own homosexual affair make headlines; Representative Mark Foley, a battler for laws against Internet sexual exploitation, ends up text-messaging sexually explicit messages to minors working as congressional pages. And on and on.

In the domination-based society that we live in, where power is exerted over others as a way to elevate oneself, the gladiator defense is an adaptation some men develop because they don't know how to deal with their vulnerable feelings in a constructive way. Why is that? Because, by and large, a domination-based society fails to empathize with men. We expect them to be invincible and invulnerable; they can be heroes but not human. And it begins at an early age when we tell our boys, "Boys don't cry." Boys are under a lot of pressure to emulate strength and consequently feel they have to disconnect and deny their softer feelings, leaving them unprepared for dealing with the complex feelings like uncertainty, fear, confusion. Those hidden feelings can pop up in unexpected and non-constructive ways, like the gladiator defense.

Obviously this defense is not limited to men; we've seen plenty of women engage in the gladiator defense as well. However, it's the boys who are still in power and running the show. This aggressive, rigid posturing may look like leadership but it isn't. The gladiator comes from weakness not strength, insecurity not confidence. Calling the gladiator on his game often ends up exposing that behind the fire and brimstone, like the Wizard of Oz, is a frightened little man. Maybe if voters learn to see through the disguise they'll choose more wisely and seek leaders who can master the softer skills of collaboration. Because really, soft is the new hard.

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