Oklahoma -- Not OK

07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robin Lakoff Professor of linguistics emerita, University of California, Berkeley

The anti-immigration bill passed in Arizona last week is unquestionably a bad bill in many ways, and the criticism of it and actions that are being contemplated against it are well justified. But there has been much less attention paid to another pair of laws that were passed by the Oklahoma legislature (over the governor's veto): laws at least as bad, and similar in what they communicate. I wonder why these bills have received so much less attention.

The two Oklahoma laws concerned a woman's reproductive freedom. The first makes it mandatory for a doctor to show a woman requesting an abortion an ultrasound, along with an interpretation of it. The second indemnifies a doctor who has failed to inform a pregnant woman that the fetus she is carrying is defective.

It is clear that among the worst facets of the Arizona law is that it dehumanizes a group of people on the basis of their ethnic identity -- a position at odds with the foundational beliefs of this nation ("all men are created equal....). The idea that it is not only legal, but moral, to deprive people of freedom on the basis of their looks and their lack of documents is or should be repugnant to everyone.

But equally repugnant are the effects and presuppositions of the Oklahoma laws. They deprive female human beings -- and only females -- of the ability to determine for themselves what they need to know and to be given the information they want, and only that information, in order to be in a position to make intelligent decisions concerning their bodies and their lives. There is a presumption that women are so stupid, or so evil, that they cannot make proper use of information to which they are privy, as well as an assumption that they are too stupid or evil to have the right to determine for themselves what they want and need to know. It's the return of "don't bother your pretty little head about it" paternalism, only worse.

For those who think that anti-abortion statutes are first and foremost about protecting fetuses, these laws should make it clear that they are not. They are about returning women to age-old positions of subordination and male control, based on a Biblical presumption that women are meant to be in such a status based on their inferiority to men. It is astonishing that, in this day and age, when women work in positions of the highest prestige and authority, this kind of statement can still be made.

More astonishing still is the fact that it can be made with barely a ripple in the news cycle. The actions of Oklahoma are not so different from those of Arizona. Both demean groups with histories of mistreatment and abuse; both dehumanize a set of human beings who are in some way "marked": not white, middle-class males. Both assume that the latter group has the right to treat the marked others any way that serves their psychological, political, or economic needs. The passage of all these laws indicates that too many white males are feeling scared and insecure, and are looking for -- and apparently have found -- scapegoats, the derogation of whom can (they think) make them feel stronger and more in control.

But the passage of the Arizona law has triggered an avalanche of critique in all the media along with threats of boycotts and other physical actions. The passage of the Oklahoma laws has triggered ... virtually nothing, as far as I can see.

Misogyny and racism are twins. While they have different targets, they arise out of the same deep psychological deformation: fear of the hater's own inadequacy. This is too terrifying for its victim to confront directly, so the basis of the fear is reassigned to an "Other" who is scapegoated as responsible, and who then (like the literal scapegoat) has to be driven out of the community of human beings, degraded and dehumanized, in order for the unmarked group to once again feel comfortable in their own skins.

But the tactic never works, because it never addresses root causes. Therefore racism and misogyny must be continually re-created and exacerbated. But it still never works for long. The only real effect of racist and misogynistic laws is to weaken and dehumanize both the individuals who support them and the governments that enact them.

But if racism and misogyny are twinned in these ways, why is it easy for reasonable people to oppose one with all their strength while ignoring the other? One answer is discouraging, but probably correct. Misogyny is older, goes deeper, and is more universal than racism, and therefore is harder to recognize for what it is and work to extirpate it. But people who are working to make America a fully humane, and human, society need to direct their efforts against both in equal measure.