Demonization is Different than Incivility
First Gushee waxes nostalgic for a time that never was: Halcyon days of yore when Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative worked together to get things done without acrimony; a time which he says is no more. But the truth is that such people have always existed and still do, the screechiness of cable news not withstanding. Good public servants have always had to muddle through turbulent times. In a large diverse society, in which some of us aspire to greater democratic norms and others work hard to oppose them, we can expect a certain amount of tumult. Indeed, there has never been a time when the nation was not dealing with issues in which people profoundly differed on a variety of important matters, and that these differences were sometimes, even often expressed with incivility or employing terms of demonization. How we achieve a more civil public dicourse and hopefully a more civil society is part of the ongoing American experiment.
And yet, Gushee would have us believe that the days of his youth in the 60s and 70s was a time when civility ruled. I guess he forgot about the brutal repression of the Civil Rights movement and the days before people started carefully distancing themselves from "the N word." In the 1960s that I remember -- it was spoken openly and often, and by major political leaders in both parties. I guess he does not recall the segregationist governors like George Wallace and Lester Maddox. I guess he also forgot about the vicious hate campaigns accusing JFK of "treason" in the Dallas area prior to his assassination. I guess he never heard about how Republican operatives like Chuck Colson organized working class hard hats into gangs of thugs to beat up anti-Vietnam War protesters. I guess he forgot about of rightwing operatives like Terry Dolan of NCPAC and how they invented the contemporary political industry of character assassination and smear mongering -- later turned into commercial "entertainment" industry products by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. While the liberal left has certainly engaged in its share of the politics and labeling and demonization, there is not now, nor has there ever been anything on the scale, the virulence, or the consequences of the politics of demonization engaged in by the various elements of the religious and secular right, past and present.
Which brings us to the heart of our story.
All this blaring history not withstanding, Gushee, an anti-abortion leader going back to at least the mid-1990s, blames the recent fashions in public political incivility -- on abortion.
"... I suspect it was the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision and the ensuing religious mobilization into political combat that have made the greatest difference. This ruling -- however one might regard it -- drew the battle lines of our current culture wars. Politics of decency gave way to blood sport."
Gushee's evidence for this assertion? None.
While it is certainly true that opposition to abortion has been a dynamic element in modern American politics, historian Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian himself, has documented that abortion was not the issue that catalyzed what became the modern Religious Right. Rather it was challenges by the federal government to the tax-exempt status of racially segregated Christian schools, especially those that had been established to get around court ordered desegregation. As a matter of fact, Jerry Falwell himself was the founder of one such whites only school. Talk to Action contributor Max Blumenthal recounts this history in his new book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party:
"Paul Weyrich, a right-wing Washington operative and anti-Vatican II Catholic had already tried to sell evangelicals such as Falwell on anti-abortion. The issue had riveted America's Catholic community and pushed elements of it deep into conservative politics. In his discussions with Falwell, however, Weyrich's pleas for pivoting resentment on a wedge issue other than race fell on deaf ears.
But let's go deeper into Gushee's historical revisionism by examining his claim that Roe vs. Wade somehow destroyed "the politics of decency and gave way to political blood sport."
"... abortion policy became viewed not just as another difficult arena where differences could be debated in good faith, but instead as a life-or-death struggle between good and evil. Nuances and shades of gray disappeared. Pro-lifers called abortion-rights supporters "pro-death." Pro-choicers called those who reviled Roe "anti-choice." You get the point."
We get the point indeed. Gushee wants us to believe that the antiabortion and reproductive rights movements are equivalent in the demonization department. But is it true?
Let's take a look at his example again:
"Pro-lifers called abortion-rights supporters "pro-death." Pro-choicers called those who reviled Roe "anti-choice."
Gushee defines demonization as:
"viewing those we disagree with as if they are the embodiment of evil. It involves a profound loss of perspective on the humanity of our opponents. They stop being people just like us, who happen to disagree with us on something; they instead become a kind of insidious demonic force let loose in the world."
That is a good definition and I think the term "pro-death" fits it pretty well. The "pro-death" meme resonates with a constellation of related terms, expressing essentially the same idea, that have been at the forefront of antiabortionism for decades, such as that abortion is "murder" or constitutes a "holocaust." Indeed, these terms and the idea that they articulate has reached the highest levels of our national discourse.
One of the more spectacular examples was when megachurch pastor Rick Warren hosted a presidential candidates forum at his church in 2008. As I wrote earlier this year:
He was supposed to ask McCain and Obama the same questions. He questioned Obama closely on abortion, but when it was McCain's turn, Warren compared abortion to "the Holocaust" and in answer, McCain simply said "I'm prolife." Warren later called on his audience not to "demonize" people with whom they may disagree -- having just compared people who have a different view on abortion to the Nazis.
Suffice to say that there are many who have taken such views to heart, and waged massive physical assaults on clinics that provide abortion care; and many thousands of crimes have been committed against abortion providers, staff and patients, most notoriously, hundreds of bombings and arsons, and dozens of murders and attempted murders. The list is long and grim -- and there is nothing, nothing to compare on the prochoice side in terms of demonization tactics in terms of severity, frequency of the consequences of such demonization. Whatever verbal or physical skirmishes that have taken place since Roe the abortion war has been almost exclusively a one sided war of aggression by people operating under prolife banners. Indeed, the slogan of the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue is one of the most infamous calls to vigilantism in modern American history: "If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it."
Mob violence, bombings, arsons and assassinations are rarely the outcome of mere incivility, and are far more likely to be associated with if not a direct consequence of demonization tactics, as David Neiwert explains in his recent book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.) And if that is so, it is certainly borne out by the history of those who say "pro-death" as opposed to those who say "anti-choice."
Indeed, the term "anti-choice" is pretty far from a term of demonization. At worst, it can be used as a label, and thus pose an obstacle to some conversations, and even be spoken in an uncivil manner. It is also true that labeling is part of -- but also different than demonization.
The fact is that the right to choose to seek; to provide; and to receive abortion care is a matter of settled law and established judicial precedent. Gushee et al, may wish that is was a crime on the order of murder, (and he does) but in fact, it is not and is unlikely to become so. American law has recognized it as a constitutionally protected matter of medical privacy since 1973. No one is obliged to get an abortion or to provide one. To describe as "anti-choice" those who oppose the law, or who interfere with those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights, seems fair and accurate to me, even if it is not Gushee's preferred term. What's more, abortion is seen as a moral choice by many mainstream religious leaders and institutions.
Thus Gushee's claim that "anti-choice" is a term of demonizing equivalent to "pro-death" is an ideologically charged false equivalence; one that also provides a revealing window on the methodology Gushee and some of his fellow common grounders employ to cast themselves as somehow more reasonable arbiters of civility than unnamed others whom he claims are engaged in "bloodsport."
Gushee's prominent exercise in false equivalence is important in its own right -- but it is also important to note that factually unsupported false equivalence has often marked the public pronouncements of Democratic Party aligned advocates of "faith outreach" and "common ground" on abortion, in recent years. These include Rev. Jim Wallis, pollster Robert P. Jones, and liberal Catholic activists John Gehring and Simone Campbell, to mention a few that I have written about in this regard.
All this said, I think that many of us who value civil discourse also believe that we need a far more honest discourse. Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, (then the executive director of Political Research Associates; currently President of Episcopal Divinity School) said it well in her essay in Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America:
"Perhaps one of the most fundamental outrages of all is the erosion of honest public discourse. When, instead of disagreeing honestly, the Right (or any of us) practice to deceive and to cut off debate with spurious claims ... we are left unable to know what to believe, how to speak in order to he heard, how to struggle together to discern the truth. By all means, let us put our values and convictions on the table, with the facts, and then lets disagree about the moral and public policy implications of that data. Let us disagree passionately - an indicator of how seriously we take it all. But let's disagree honestly."
Demonization is Different than Incivility | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)
Demonization is Different than Incivility | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)