I’ve felt quite embattled this past month – by the media’s persecution of the Covington Catholic kids, by some Americans’ embrace of third-trimester abortions and flirtation with infanticide, and by Ottawa City Councilor Shawn Menard’s open discrimination against pro-life citizen transit commissioner Michael Olsen. Most of all, I’ve felt embattled by internal divisions in the pro-life movement over issues like gestational limits and the Toronto March for Life.
I write this column with a heavy heart, having previously written more optimistically on the topic in October. I did warn then that: “diversity-is-our-strength, just as much as it could be our downfall.” Lately, it has seemed like the latter.
I’m used to being in the minority, for being disliked for my views. Most pro-lifers are. So, for nearly a decade now, I’ve found refuge, belonging, and strength in the pro-life community, and that’s precisely why this discord amongst us is so hard to bear.
As I argued before, I don’t want a false unity. It is okay that we disagree, and okay to express those disagreements, even to debate each other’s approaches.
One of my favourite things Jordan Peterson said at the University of Toronto free speech rally in October, 2016, was: “I don’t speak perfectly; my arguments aren’t perfectly formulated – neither are anyone else’s. And we have to be able to say what we have to say badly, or we won’t be able to think at all.”
I quote him in explanation and in apology. We in the pro-life movement are going to make mistakes in what we say and do, as a by-product of trying to say or do anything, and so we need to be granted this leeway without going at each other’s throats.
I think pro-lifers are generally very good at applying this principle in conversations with pro-choicers. I’ve been trained not to resort to name-calling, ad hominems, or complaints about tone, but instead, to refute my interlocutor’s central point, and I see other pro-lifers do that too. In philosophy, a similar concept is referred to as the “principle of charity.” In order to be charitable, and avoid strawmanning one’s opponent, or getting caught up in how an idea is being expressed (knowing that we often do this poorly), one should respond to the best, most rational interpretation of the speaker’s argument, even if that means going out of one’s way in order to properly formulate this interpretation.
One of the first steps we take when we initiate a conversation with a pro-choice stranger is to build common ground, to let them know that we don’t view them as the enemy, and that we recognize their good intentions. When someone is particularly vigorous in their defense of abortion, we might say, for instance, with all sincerity, “I appreciate how much you care about women’s health and well-being.”
Perhaps, sometimes we’re just speaking to a malicious person, but if there is any room to assume otherwise, we do. We recognize that abortion is a sensitive topic for many, and so we are always, always kind.
When I think about how we treat pro-choicers, some of whom will admit that abortion kills human beings but don’t bat an eye, or worse, will make a comment about how hungry an image of an aborted fetus makes them, I’m struck by how terribly we treat our own in contrast. Where is the default assumption of good will? The humble acknowledgement that a disputant might nevertheless have something of value to express, even if he or she may do so clumsily? The simple recognition that we all have the same goal and are on the same side here?
Implying otherwise is awful given how much we all have sacrificed for this cause, and the extent to which “pro-life” has been subsumed into our identity and way of life.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t ever criticize each other. That was the whole point of my September column and half my columns are about how our movement can do better. But we must criticize each other while keeping in mind that we’re all trying our hardest to do what we believe is right. We must remain civil. We must continue to hold respect for each other. We must try to collaborate when possible.
It feels so juvenile to be advocating for basic courtesies, and I wouldn’t be doing so if I didn’t think it was necessary. The choice I referenced in October? (See para 2) This feels like the turning point, and I fear where we’re headed if we don’t offer the same decency to our pro-life brothers and sisters that we offer to abortion apologists.