Saturday, February 20, 2021
How should we argue about deeply contested issues? This morning our local newspaper published an op-ed repeating an argument I’ve seen several times in recent weeks: warning that the pro-life movement is “deeply rooted in white supremacy.” That would come as a surprise to Clement of Alexandria (who expressed Christian opposition to abortion more than 1500 years before the United States even existed), to Mother Teresa (who criticized political leaders for their permissive abortion policies and their treatment of the poor), to Cardinal Wilton Gregory (America’s first Black Cardinal who has long advocated against both white supremacy and abortion), to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (acknowledged recently by the organization as contributing a “racist legacy” through her eugenics ideology), and to millions of Black Americans today who oppose legal abortion at about the same rate as other Americans. To dismiss today’s anti-abortion advocacy as “rooted in white supremacy” disregards history and inflames an already difficult issue.
The point I want to make is not about abortion, it’s about how we argue. The effort to label anti-abortion advocates as white supremacists follows efforts to label proponents of single-payer health care as communists. Are there white supremacists who oppose legal abortion? Sure. Are there communists who support single-payer health care? Sure. But there is nothing intrinsic to single-payer health care or anti-abortion advocacy that compels an embrace of communism or white supremacy, and to suggest so is to adopt an approach to political debate designed to shed considerably more heat than light.
These are not isolated examples. Increasingly, our political disagreements on particular issues are being absorbed into a broader war between two vast tribal identities. Those who disagree with us on abortion don’t just disagree with us on abortion (or health care or immigration or police reform); they are “the other” – enemies in a winner-take-all battle of good versus evil. If they’re not actually white supremacists (or communists), they might as well be. There is no point in searching for common ground because they are evil, all the way down. Whatever we fear or hate most in the world gets attached to whoever stands in the way of our political objectives.
I think this approach to argument is actually a cop-out, a lazy excuse to avoid the hard work of engagement. If I can dismiss those who disagree with me as white supremacists or communists, I don’t have to listen to their arguments, much less offer a substantive response. This is no way to conduct a democracy.
There are strong arguments on both sides of the abortion debate, and we should engage them. There are strong arguments on both sides of the health care debate, on the immigration debate, on the police reform debate, and on many other vexing public policy challenges. That’s why they are difficult issues. Simplistic narratives and name-calling don’t make these issues any less difficult, just more toxic. We can do better.