Gabriela Cora, M.D., M.B.A.

Gabriela Cora M.D., M.B.A.

Alpha Females

The Seductive Trap of Demagogy

Seductive trap of demagogy with the President and birth control.

Posted Mar 04, 2012

Yesterday’s blog on Misogyny, Demagogy, and Personal Responsibility raised some interesting emotional triggers in my readers. After all, we all easily agree Limbaugh was a bully when he called Fluke a slut as she was trying to make a case of why contraceptives should be covered by health insurance in a Catholic setting. Although he has apologized, I believe we have little doubt of where he stands: meaning, he revealed his disrespect for women clearly.

Less people seemed comfortable with my characterization of President Obama’s personal phone call to this thirty year-old woman as demagogic.

While it is easy to point at Limbaugh and call his offense what it is, we tend to like a nice guy saying pleasant words to make us feel good or better, particularly if we feel mistreated or wronged in some way. The President’s apology to this woman also makes other women feel good too, because women identify with Fluke and wished for an apology as well.

Before I go into the issue of demagogy, allow me to discuss the case in a little more depth. I started medical school almost 30 years ago, I’ve been a doctor for over 20 years, and the issue of birth control is a confusing one. And, as a side note, I graduated with two young children. I will talk about these issues from a health perspective as a medical doctor, a behavioral expert as a psychiatrist, and as an experienced leadership consultant based on the players involved in this case.

On birth control and personal responsibility

How do you feel when foreigners come to the States and refuse to speak English? We are quick to demand immigrants adopt our customs and language and, although we allow for many traditions to prevail, we expect that they will abide by our laws and American ways.

Likewise, when adult students decide to attend a religious school at twenty-something, they should abide by the institution’s processes and regulations. A student who attends Catholic school and dislikes Catholic teachings will be a mismatch. After all, the student could have chosen to attend any other non-religious school. Likewise, many of us can also choose where we work or what hospital we want to go to.

Looking strictly at contraception, the distribution of condoms is better suited to help both against sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy, as compared to birth control pills (even though birth control pills have better rates to prevent pregnancy). True, condoms may not be as sexy and may take away from the moment, but there is nothing that will help prevent the spread of gonorrhea, HIV, or hepatitis infections like condoms. One more thing, nobody needs a prescription for condoms: you can get them over the counter or you can have them distributed in most educational institutions for free. All women should visit her doctor prior to having a prescription for birth control pills.

Fluke says a friend of hers was not covered for polycystic ovary disease. That sounds highly unusual as most insurances cover for birth control use for medical purposes including acne, polycystic ovary disease, mood swings, and more.

While you can easily make a case for free distribution of condoms, why is free birth control “more fair and better” than free vaccination to all children, free cancer treatment for children or adults, or free smoking cessation patches for all? Why would a student who has many other expenses expect that her birth control is an expense she should not have to invest in herself?

The seduction of demagogy

Fluke was speechless at Limbaugh’s personal attack. She felt there was no way in which she could have any rational interaction with someone attacking her so aggressively. While the attack was blatant, staying quiet (paralyzed in the fight-flight paradigm) does not represent success in any way. Which brings me to the point of: When is it best to offer a motivating, supporting, or encouraging message at a high leadership level? When can you give praise for positive results, not for simply trying?

Had the President made a private and confidential call to Fluke, we wouldn't be talking about demagogy. When the President of the United States calls a private citizen who has been ridiculed by a media commentator to tell her that he supports her in public, instead of elevating himself to the true nature of his stature, he’s engaging in an unequal interaction with the media. Did the President contact our gay serviceman when he was ridiculed during the GOP debate? And how about contacting just about anyone else who is bullied, ostracized, or criticized in any way by the media? Why did he contact, and publically acknowledge this contact, with a young woman who was discussing such a politically-heated topic in Congress?

As a leader, you need to face the bully, call his/her attack what it is, demand that they back off, secure your position, and move on. As a leader, you also need to stand tall, thank the support you receive, but also realize where it is coming from. If you realize someone means well and doesn't expect anything back, thank them, move on and continue on your quest to success. If you perceive your supporter has an obvious secondary gain, call it what it is, and move on. Don't allow your naïveté to play tricks on you. You need to recognize your efforts and your success. Anytime you are patted on your shoulder for an effort without the accompanying success, you will feel something is missing and will feel disempowered. Every time you are praised for your success, you will feel good and empowered. It’s very flattering to have someone of power praise you but you need to ground yourself again to avoid losing perspective. By Limbaugh attacking Fluke in an indefensible way, and the President jumping in before Fluke could regain her stance and make her case in a significant way, power was taken from her and managed (or manipulated) by politics.

The reality is: the public perception of power is of Limbaugh as a bully and President Obama as the savior. To truly empower women in this matter and in every other matter, we have to own the stage.