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* Communis rixatrix: a common scold, “a species of public nuisance – a troublesome and angry woman who broke the public peace by habitually arguing and quarreling with her neighbours.”

Do you sometimes wonder about the mental state of the fringiest of our Republican legislators?  Consider the following recent examples of shrill and clueless scolding on the part of two of the people elected to represent us:

–At a hearing on anti-abortion legislation, State Senator Jane Cunningham felt it appropriate to ask witness Michelle Trupianio, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, if she had ever had an abortion. When Trupiano appropriately responded that it was none of Cunningham’s business, Cunningham proceeded to badger her until Senator Matt Bartle “reminded her to allow witnesses to answer the questions asked of them.”

–A couple of weeks ago, Rep. Cynthia Davis rudely and aggressively questioned an African-American witness at a hearing before the House Health Care Committee about the nutrition practices of “your people,” and “your community.” Davis also quizzed the witness about her religious background as if it were relevant, and brought up her own personal opinions about the choices she believes food stamp recipients make.

Both of these women used their relatively powerful positions to bully and belittle people whom they clearly consider to be not only different from themselves, but threatening and inferior. What should have been dispassionate forums to explore issues were perverted into irrelevant personal inquisitions by a couple of two-bit Torquemadas.

All of which came to my mind when I read a recent column by Nick Kristoff in the New York Times. Kristoff described research that suggests that people whom we commonly classify as “liberal” or “conservative” may have significantly different cognitive structures from each other. Research that looked at startle responses and other neurological markers lined up with  earlier research that found that conservatives:

tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable or under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between “us” and “them,” and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?  The more offensive people like Cunningham and Davis seem, the more they are really playing defense. What this research implies is that they represent extreme degrees of a common neurological bias. When you mix their biological inclination to respond with fear or disgust with simple-minded religious or political ideology, you get holy warriors (jihadists?), bent on running roughshod over all the infidels who don’t see the world just like they do – a conclusion that is not too encouraging for those who believe in rational give-and-take, but it could add an important dimension to theories of persuasion such as, for example, Lakoffian “framing.”