To Kill Debate

Welp, even a cursory scan of the blind outrage people are spewing on Facebook and Instagram over the abortion issue shows that the mob impulse on social media to cast opposing views in the stupidest, most vile way possible is still alive and well.

Exhibit A: A guest speaker on the Daily Show describing the true motives of the pro-life movement:

Anti-choice people are not trying to stop abortion. They are trying to legislate who can and cannot have abortions. Because conservative politicians — their wives and mistresses and daughters are always going to be able to get an abortion somewhere.

All criminalizing abortion will do is keep people in poverty for generations. That’s the goal, and if it wasn’t the goal they would spend their time and money on comprehensive sex education, free birth control, and free contraception.

Ooo, those wicked, wicked pro-lifers! If only they didn’t have some grand plan to trap poor people in poverty! If only they weren’t trying to rig the system so that they could appear righteous while still retaining access to the abortions they need!

Exhibit B: An influencer claims that pro-lifers “aren’t interested in reducing abortion rates, they are interested in outrage”:

There are ways to reduce abortion rates to the minimum. Again, the data is all there. Access to medical services, access to contraceptives, comprehensive sex education, addressing poverty … all these things would reduce abortion rates; but they actively oppose these efforts.

Did you get that? All pro-lifers everywhere actively oppose access to medical services, contraceptives, sex ed, and solutions to poverty. It’s as if the pro-life movement just hasn’t thought things through.

Exhibit C: This widely-shared quote from Pastor David Barnhart, which asserts that the unborn are a “convenient group of people to advocate for” and that pro-lifers (all of them—no exception) ignore other vulnerable populations such as prisoners, immigrants, the sick, the poor, widows, and orphans.

Why this pastor has not heard of the myriad pro-life churches and organizations that spend huge amounts of time and money doing prison ministry, ESL programs, soup kitchens, foster care, and so on, is not clear. It’s as if he cannot grasp that it is possible to look out for both the born and the unborn simultaneously.

Exhibit D: A friend sharing a video on IG of a speaker loudly declaring that the pro-life stance is fundamentally “un-American”. (I tried to find this video again, but the story expired.)

Exhibit E: A friend sharing an article and personal commentary accusing pro-lifers of not wanting to provide resources or pass laws to help vulnerable women with unwanted pregnancies. (Another IG story that expired.)

Listen, you may believe to the core of your being that you have legitimate points to make, and perhaps you do. But grossly misrepresenting what the other side truly wants and believes, and assuming the absolute worst about them, is not only irresponsible and unfair; it is going to backfire. If you actually want to change someone’s mind, then I implore you to heed John Stuart Mills’ advice:

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

But you don’t want to change anyone’s mind, do you? You’re pissed off, and you want to tell someone. Which I get, but then why, for the love of God, use a medium as dumb and counterproductive as social media? Does it give you a thrill, as if you’re actually improving things? Does it make you feel … better, somehow?

The answer is yes, of course it does—ranting always feel euphoric. But the problem with ranting is that it only breeds more ranting; and the problem with euphoria is that it is temporary. Real life is still there when it fades.

What I believe this reveals is a much deeper societal problem, namely, a cynical contempt of debate. This contempt rears its ugly head every time a social controversy emerges. Simply put, people aren’t interested in debate: it’s too hard, too inconvenient, too futile. Belligerent vitriol that earns you likes and views is easier and far more satisfying in the short term. 

I can sympathize with that, to a degree. It’s disheartening when you argue with others and don’t see any results; it’s frustrating when you seek to persuade and hit a wall. All the more so when you don’t get any public recognition for your heroic efforts. But to proceed from genuine anger and frustration to a refusal to engage in fair, earnest persuasion is to give up on democracy itself. Debate is the price of our form of government. If you’re not willing to pay it, then don’t be surprised when you lose it. I believe we can keep democracy, but it won’t happen by lobbing caricatures about on the web.

Here is my simple proposal to the more constructive-minded citizens out there: Apply Mills’ principle. Restate your opponent’s views in terms *they* would find acceptable before you begin your critique. Try this in a space other than social media, and go deeper than the shallow snippets shared there. This will do far more good to you and your fellow citizens than merely adding to the digital outrage sewage. You might even change some minds. 

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