By Nicole Mazzeo
[The “Sparknotes” version is at the bottom, for people with limited time/attention spans.]
I’m not talking about respect for a person’s right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy, or respect for a fetus’s right to life (no comment on either of those right now). I’m talking about respect for people who you disagree with. Your “opponents.”
Have you ever heard a pro-choice advocate talk about “pro-lifers”? Or a pro-life advocate talk about … “pro-abortion-ers”? (Or whatever anti-abortion people call pro-choice people.)
If so, it’s likely that you’ve heard this done in a way that paints the disagreeing party as bumbling idiots. Not just bumbling idiots, but conniving, deceitful, bumbling idiots with really bad intentions.
Yes, it can be hard to respect a person when you disagree so deeply on an issue that could directly affect your life in a huge way.
And sometimes people actually do have bad intentions. Sometimes people are dishonest with themselves and with others. Sometimes people jump to conclusions.
But there’s often a lot more to people than that.
Beyond Hating On the “Opposition”
It’s possible to have deeply held beliefs and convictions without vilifying people with opposing beliefs.
It’s possible to be pro-choice without viewing people who are anti-abortion as raging idiots. And vice-versa.
Not only is it possible, but it may be a more constructive approach.
That’s why The Public Conversations Project brought together a small group of prominent pro-choice and pro-life advocates to have an intimate five-year-long dialogue on their differing beliefs.
When John Salvi shot and killed two people (and injured five) in two abortion-providing health clinics in Brookline, MA back in 1994, the people at Public Conversations Project came up with a plan for a dialogue to prevent future violence and hate.
This dialogue happened between 1994 and 1999, but – hear me out – when I saw the follow up video (below), I found it to be one of the most relevant commentaries on the current abortion debate that I’ve ever seen.
3 Quick Sentences to Explain What The Public Conversations Project Is
The whole idea behind The Public Conversations Project (based in Watertown, MA) is that building relationships and collaboration across polarized groups can help solve many of today’s biggest issues. They’ve worked on lots of controversial issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigration, same-sex marriage, gun control, and diversity. They believe that if people are able to fully see each other as human beings – relatable, empathetic, and imperfect – resolution and peace often become attainable.
Okay, So Back to Abortion
As someone who is very much on the pro-choice side of things, it worries me that some of the people in charge of abortion rights organizations think of pro-life people as idiots.*
Melissa Kogut, former executive director of Mass NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) reflects on her experience with being part of the Public Conversations abortion dialogue:
“I … was surprised. I had my own preconceptions of what … the pro-life women were like, and they were completely dashed. … They’re smart. They have full, interesting lives. … That was all surprising to me. I know that sounds really judgmental, but that was surprising to me.”
I know what Kogut is talking about. Based on my personal experience, it is a pretty common perspective in progressive circles.
The Dangers of Dehumanizing the Other Side
Why might it be harmful to think of people we disagree with this way?
Here are 3 reasons:
1. Anytime we stop seeing another person as a full, complex, human being with legitimate feelings and a meaningful existence, we miss out on so much.
“I did not know my opposition except as they were portrayed in the media. And I was terrified of the hostility that I was going to meet when I sat down to talk with these people. … But very early on in the dialogue, I realized that I could like these people – really! These people were as committed to their position as I to mine. … We could develop a relationship, and we did. We came to love each other, in spite of the fact that neither one of us changed our opinion in the least.”
2. It’s often this kind of dehumanization that enables people to be cruel and sometimes even violent to other people.
3. Dehumanizing a person also makes it easy to completely write off everything they say. When it’s us vs. them, we can avoid critically thinking about the places where an issue is unclear or difficult.
“We never talk on our side about the shades of gray. When you’re involved in a political movement like we are, we are focused on mobilizing the troops. The way you do that is you paint things in the starkest possible terms so that people are moved to act, so that they know what to do. We don’t have conversations about the things that we have doubts about, or that are more murky.”
I’m not saying that you should take everyone’s opinion to heart all of the time, because that can be exhausting and emotionally painful, but it may be worthwhile to hear people out most of the time, and try to understand what they believe and why.
The Difference Between Anger and Disrespect
For a lot of people, anger is a natural response to disagreement – and that’s okay. There are lots of legitimate things to be angry about in the abortion debate. But there is a big difference between being angry at someone (or a group of people) and losing all respect for them as fellow humans.
Anger is an emotion, which may be justified – and regardless of whether it’s justified, it may be beyond your control in the way that emotions often are. There are healthy ways to deal with anger.
Disrespect, on the other hand, often means losing esteem for a person’s entire being.
Maybe it’s appropriate to lose all respect for some people in some circumstances (I’m not sure about this one), but I think at the very least, we should be very hesitant and deliberate about taking the leap into disrespect.
Also: Don’t Be Classist About It!
We live in a society where people who identify as pro-life are more likely to have a lower income and lower level of education. Because of this class divide, it’s crucial that pro-choice people think about classism when we consider how we’re going to think about, talk about, and interact with people who identify as pro-life. Tip: Avoid personal attacks/criticisms of people’s intelligence, etc., as opposed to criticisms of their arguments.
Let’s make sure that our arguments against anti-abortion-rights advocacy aren’t coming from a place of class-based prejudice, because that is shitty.
Let’s put seeing everyone as a full human being, and having compassion for everyone, at the center of our feminism/anti-oppression work.
Including the people we disagree with.
*While I think many of us can do a better job of being respectful of people we disagree with, I also want to note that I am deeply grateful for the people who have worked hard to make abortion legal in the U.S. Thank you.
The Sparknotes Version of This Article
• Pro-choice people often think of pro-life people as being stupid, and vice versa.
• It’s possible to have deeply held beliefs without vilifying people who disagree with you.
• The Public Conversations Project of Watertown, MA had a 5-year-long dialogue in the 90’s where leading pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates got together to have a conversation and learn to respect each other as fellow human beings, which I thought was really cool.
• It worries me that some heads of pro-choice organizations think of pro-life people as idiots.
• It’s harmful to dehumanize people we disagree with because:
1. We miss out on people’s richness.
2. It may enable us to be cruel and/or violent toward them.
3. It may enable us to completely ignore them and pretend the issue is simple.
• Being angry at someone (or a group of people) isn’t the same as not respecting them. Let’s be deliberate about which one of these (if either) we choose.
• Pro-life people are more likely to have a lower income and lower level of education. it’s crucial that pro-choice people think about classism when we consider how we’re going to think about, talk about, and interact with people who identify as pro-life. Tip for making sure you’re not being classist: Avoid personal attacks/criticisms of people’s intelligence, etc., as opposed to criticisms of their arguments.
• Let’s put seeing everyone as a full human being, and having compassion for everyone, at the center of our feminism/anti-oppression work.