Friday, July 05, 2013

On Misogyny and Name-Calling

One of the things that drives me crazy about the way we talk about controversial social issues is that folks on both sides of every debate are quick to impugn the motives of their opponents and choose sloganeering and name-calling over rational discussion.* Witness recent debates over attempts to ban abortion after 20 weeks in Texas and to make abortions more difficult to obtain in Ohio.

Now, contrary to what many of those who know me assume, I'm not easy to pin down as a liberal or a conservative. (And things get really complicated when you notice that there's a distinction, or can be, between one's views about what is morally right and one's views about what should be legally permitted. Sometimes my opinions about morality are reflected in my opinions about the law, and sometimes they are not. I am large. I contain multitudes.†) So here's a quick reference guide to some of my beliefs about controversial issues. Most people would consider me a liberal with respect to affirmative action, the death penalty, drug laws, gun control, access to health care, immigration, and the welfare state. Most people would consider me a conservative with respect to abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, marriage, and whom you should be having sex with.

I could be wrong about any of those things. I'm not an infallible guide to moral truth. The most I can assert is that my beliefs are honestly come by, or so I hope, and that I've actually thought about some of these things rather deeply. My conclusions may be mistaken, but, unless I'm delusional and/or being utterly dishonest with myself, none of my views is motivated by hatred or even dislike of any person or any group of people. Thus it disturbs me greatly to read a majority opinion in a Supreme Court case which suggests that attempts to legally define marriage as a heterosexual union are, or rather must be, grounded in "a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group." And it troubles me to no end to see my Facebook newsfeed blown up by persons, whom I take generally to be persons of good will, using the phrase "hate(s) women" of those who attempt to restrict late-trimester abortion and to regulate abortion clinics.

The purpose of this post is not to persuade anyone that my views about these issues are correct, or even, for that matter, rationally defensible. (I've written on marriage here; if you want to examine the case for a conservative view of abortion, you might do well to start here and here.) All I am insisting upon is the following:

It is simply and undeniably false that the pro-life position is motivated by hatred of women. 

Consider: the baby in the picture below is no more than 24 weeks past conception.

In case this image doesn't speak for itself, here's a version of the core argument that motivates many pro-lifers to push for the kind of legislation being discussed in Texas:

1. It is wrong to intentionally kill a human infant.
2. There is no morally significant difference between a 20 week-old human fetus and a human infant.
3. Therefore, it is wrong to intentionally kill a 20 week-old human fetus.

If you think that a person must hate women in order to accept this argument, then you are mistaken. If you say that people who accept this argument hate women because they accept this argument, and you know that this is not true, then you are a liar. You should stop. And you should tell your friends to stop.

Look, there are reasons why some people think that it is morally permissible to intentionally terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks. There are reasons why some people think that abortion should be legally permitted throughout pregnancy. I know this. I've been teaching college classes on the subject since 2003. But the notion that the only possible basis for rejecting those reasons is misogyny is not merely false, but obviously false. Indeed, it's dishonest and libelous.

I guess what really worries me is the sense that more and more people -- intelligent, seemingly informed people, I mean -- find it so easy, and so appealing, to accuse their fellow citizens of being hateful bigots. This is dangerous ground, I realize, because some people are hateful bigots, and I certainly don't want to say that we should never identify them as such. But when it comes to the issues that are currently generating so much "discussion" (a term I use loosely in the present context), the charge just can't be made to stick. For crying out loud, President Obama, of all people, unequivocally said in 2008 that "marriage is the union between a man and a woman" and that he was "not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage." He also indicated that it would be perfectly legitimate for individual states to define marriage as they see fit. Is there anyone -- anyone at all -- who seriously thinks that President Obama was, at that time, motivated by hate? Yet here I sit, less than five years later, affirming precisely the view he endorsed at that time (viz., marriage is an essentially heterosexual institution, but civil unions for same-sex couples are a good idea), and I find myself reluctant to express my views in public because I'm an untenured professor at a state university and worry for my career if I'm labeled as a homophobic misogynist (which is the risk one runs in expressing those views). As far as abortion restrictions are concerned, the proposed legislation would lump Texas together with such regressive societies as France (abortion banned after 12 weeks), Germany (very heavy restrictions after the first trimester; counseling and a three-day waiting period are required), The Netherlands (banned after 24 weeks, 22 weeks in practice),and Sweden (special permission required after 18 weeks, abortions must be performed by licensed practitioners in approved health care facilities). May we conclude that the legislative bodies of these nations are engaged in a war on women? If not, then perhaps it's time for American abortion rights supporters to rethink their rhetoric.

We live in a pluralistic society. If we cannot all agree about what is right and what is good, as it seems we cannot, then our best hope lies in respecting our fellow citizens. We need to listen to each other, and we need to assume the best of those with whom we disagree. This does not mean that we refrain from critiquing their claims. It does not mean that we refrain from trying to persuade others to reject their claims and agree with ours. It simply means that we treat others the way we wish to be treated: fairly, with an open mind. Some of our interlocutors may prove, upon careful investigation, to be arguing in bad faith. They actually are full of hate. They actually are indifferent to evidence and argument. We do not act wrongly or disrespectfully when we call them closed-minded bigots, for that is what they are, and it is good for them to be known as such. (As a rule of thumb, however, we could probably do ourselves a lot of good by making it a priority to "out" the bigots on our own side before worrying about the bigots we oppose.) What careful investigation will also reveal, however, is that there's quite a lot more concern for goodness and justice on "the other side" than many people assume. Let's look for it, and make that our starting point. 

Leave the name-calling to the idiots and jackasses.

*I'm not saying that this is a uniquely American or 21st-century phenomenon; maybe it's the normal human condition. Either way, it's not a good thing.

†I hope, however, that I do not contradict myself.

My colleagues will, I hope, take it as an expression of my confidence in their generosity of spirit that I've decided to post these thoughts under my own name. I can't think of a soul with whom I work who would object to my doing so, even among those who I am pretty sure disagree with me about the issues themselves. So, thanks, AUM. Love ya.