By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—
It’s hard to argue with someone’s subjective experience.
That’s why, when I attended a “pro-life” event over the weekend for an upcoming story, the most I did was observe and ask questions.
I happen to fall on the “pro-choice” side of the abortion debate, so it came as no surprise that the temptation to interject or object came over me more than once that day. It was my first time at an event specifically catered to pro-lifers, and my goal while there was to remain a neutral presence.
What was reinforced for me there is that opinions and beliefs are as much the products of one’s emotional responses to experiences as they are the conclusions of ethical or logical processes. I think most of us would like to believe that the latter trumps the former in our own personal credos, but in my experience, it’s overwhelmingly the other way around.
We who do not have a trauma informing our stance on abortion should consider ourselves lucky, and not just because we’re spared much of the emotional and psychological pain. We get a detached perspective, which is insufficient in some ways, but invaluable in others.
Criticism is important, but understanding is a necessary prerequisite, at least if you want to get anywhere.
“Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”
“Enemy” might be too strong a word, but the sentiment expressed in this quote from ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” still rings true today. Not only is it a salient point, but for our purposes, it’s slightly more compassionate than it first appears.
Empathy is equally important to have for our opponents as it is for our allies. Traumas exist on and inform both sides of a variety of sensitive topics. Sharing, listening and relating to these traumas may not always reveal the answers, but it’s a practice that gives us detached ones valuable data, to use some excessively dispassionate and analytical language. It allows us to identify sources of suffering or injustice, and then act accordingly.
Post hoc rationalization describes a process by which people, when confronted with a moral question, spit out a conclusion, and then try to rationally justify that conclusion after the fact. Most of this work happens unconsciously, but it remains the case that it can turn supposedly detached and logical discourse into a minefield of fallacies. Verbally “working through” underlying traumas is tantamount to meticulously deactivating each mine.
But does the problem of logical arguments built on shaky pretenses matter at all if the results are the same? I think they do, because at some point, future actions will reveal emotional attachments as the veneer of rationality erodes.
I don’t know of a cure-all for this problem to which all emotional beings inevitably fall victim, but I think awareness is a good place to start. If you can identify where your emotional attachments lie, then it’s easy to parse them in your mind when considering your stance on an issue. This type of awareness is equally useful for understanding those whose views we disagree with. If someone on the other side is willing to divulge personal experiences which led to their current beliefs, then it’s in your best interest to listen and earnestly attempt to put yourself in their shoes.
The thought of entertaining a perspective you vehemently disagree with may genuinely disgust you, but it’s my belief that willful ignorance is never a friend to progress. Perhaps somewhat ironically, opening the debate stage to everyone’s feelings can actually lead to more detached discorese down the road. When all our cards are on the table, then everything suddenly becomes less like a poker game. You no longer have to guess at your opponent’s hidden biases because it’s all right there.
We don’t live in a perfect world, so we can never completely tear down those barriers. Some may not even be willing to try, but I like to think we can steer things in that direction.
Despite what the Stoics of ancient Rome might have you believe, feelings will always be there to influence us, but that might not be such a bad thing.
If you would like a more in-depth look into the sentients surrounding the abortion debate in Chattanooga, then I recommend checking out my article on the subject.