Dialog on Life Issues: Avoiding Some Obstacles to Communication

An essential part of consistent life ethic advocacy is learning how to talk about the ethic or specific life issues to people with differing views. In a recent post for the Consistent Life Network blog, Josh Brahm of the Equal Rights Institute (ERI) offered some good tips for constructive dialog.[1] I have further thoughts on this topic, partly inspired by ERI’s work.

Cooperative Ideal and Adversarial Reality

Dialog about life issues or any other contested issue should ideally be cooperative, with people sharing and considering each other’s views, identifying common ground and differences, and listening to criticisms. While they probably won’t agree, they will at least reach a better understanding of differing views. Perhaps, over time and after enough good dialogs, people might reconsider their views.

As we all know, however, this ideal of dialog is rarely realized. Most dialogs on life issues are not cooperative but adversarial. Each side behaves like a lawyer conducting an aggressive cross-examination of a witness. Each treats the other side as someone whose views are suspect and deserve rigorously skeptical, if not hostile, scrutiny. Each side tries to trip up the other, to catch the other in a contradiction, inconsistency, or other fault.

The limitation of this adversarial approach I want to focus on is how this approach prevents people from honestly answering questions about their views.

No one wants to answer questions posed to trap them or make them look foolish. No one wants to be in the vulnerable position of the witness being cross-examined by the hostile lawyer. As a result, people in an adversarial dialog will likely do two things.

  1. To not be trapped, they will avoid giving direct or clear answers to any questions for which they don’t have some ready-made, “safe” reply.
  2. They will try going on the offensive and aggressively question the other person, to reverse the lawyer-witness approach. (Frederica Mathewes-Green aptly described this process when she observed “I had long wondered why, at debates, I would attack abortion, and my opponent would not defend abortion but attack me.”)[2]

When this type of back-and-forth takes over a dialog, the people involved will end up not only still disagreeing—which was probably inevitable—but not even understanding each other’s views. Why should they? The whole dialog was directed not to mutual understanding and an honest exploration of the issue but to avoiding being trapped and humiliated.

This problem with adversarial dialog can arise in any number of ways, but I can think of two types of questions that can easily lead a dialog on the life issues to become adversarial and unproductive. Consistent life ethic activists need to be careful how they handle these difficult questions.

Difficult Question #1: Hard Cases

In dialogs on life issues, someone will frequently ask about “hard cases” that seemingly challenge a commitment to nonviolence. Here are some possible forms these questions might take:

  • On abortion, the hard case question might be “What if a woman becomes pregnant because of rape?” or “What if continuing a pregnancy would threaten a woman’s life?”
  • On the death penalty, the question might be “How do you deal with a remorseless killer who has killed people in prison?” or “What about cases where convicted murderers have escaped from prison?”
  • On euthanasia, “What if a terminally ill person is in excruciating pain that medicine cannot relieve?”
  • On war, “What if a ruthless tyrant is committing genocide?”
  • On a general commitment to nonviolence, “What if someone violently attacked your family?”

There is an obvious objection to such questions (which I will get to), but they are not inherently bad or unreasonable ones. Considering the full implications of a commitment to nonviolence and how to apply the consistent life ethic to extreme situations is worthwhile. Moreover, as Josh Brahm and Rachel Crawford of ERI explain, in a great video on questions about abortion in cases of rape, questions about hard or extreme cases help people in dialog fully understand precisely what the other person believes.[3] (I should add that this video influenced my own thoughts on dialog here, and I highly recommend it.) Consistent life ethic advocates should try to answer people’s legitimate curiosity about these hard cases.

When questions about hard cases come up, however, we might feel reluctant to answer them. Such questions often come across as a trap set by the questioner. If we respond to such questions by insisting on adherence to nonviolence, the other person will attack us as fanatical or uncaring. If we respond by making an exception or expressing uncertainty, that person will attack us as inconsistent or hypocritical.

Faced with an apparent trap, a consistent life ethic advocate might understandably choose not to answer the question directly. Instead, the advocate might raise that obvious objection and point out that such hard cases are rare, extreme situations. Most acts of violence we oppose don’t resemble these examples, and how we deal with unusual hard cases shouldn’t determine how we generally deal with abortion, the death penalty, and so on.

This response is correct, as far as it goes, but the person posing the hard cases question probably will see it as an evasion. The questioner might come away from the dialog not knowing what the consistent life ethic advocate really thinks about hard cases while dismissing the advocate for dodging difficult questions.

An alternative response, which might move the dialog closer to cooperation, could be for the consistent life ethic advocate to say something like this: “That’s a good question, and I will do my best to answer it. Once I do, though, I would like to ask you a question. After we have both given our answers, let’s talk about them.” The advocate would then give an honest answer to the hard case question.

After that, the advocate could ask the other person: “What about cases that are not as extreme?” What about a pregnancy that is not life threatening? A killer who has shown remorse? A terminally ill person who is not in unmanageable pain? Do you think abortion or execution or suicide is appropriate in those cases?

Such an approach addresses the hard cases question while encouraging both people in the dialog to present their beliefs for scrutiny. It steps away from an adversarial relationship toward more of a mutual exchange of views.

Difficult Question #2: Alternatives

In response to a consistent life ethic advocate’s opposition to some type of violence, someone might ask, “What’s the alternative?” If we don’t support violence, how do we address the problem or injustice that the violence—supposedly—corrects?

Again, this is a fair question. It’s even more reasonable than the hard cases questions, since finding alternatives to violence is relevant to all cases of violence, not just extreme hard cases. We should try to answer it. Yet such a question can easily provoke the same kind of wariness and reluctance as the hard cases questions, for two reasons.

The obvious reason is that the question shifts scrutiny onto the consistent life ethic advocate, who now must provide some practical solution to the issue being discussed. Given the variety and complexity of situations in which violence occurs, coming up with an adequate, practical nonviolent solution will often be challenging. The advocate might feel they are in the “witness being cross-examined” position.

The subtler reason is that the advocate might see a request for alternatives as a way of setting certain terms for the discussion. When the question is “Does a practical alternative to this type of violence exist?” the implied follow-up question might be “If no practical alternative exists, then doesn’t that mean the violence is justified?” The consistent life ethic advocate would understandably see accepting such terms of discussion as conceding too much. A preferred approach might be first to reject the violence as unacceptable and, with this rejection clearly established, only then consider alternatives.  

Let me illustrate with a specific example. When the subject of targeted killing by the United States government (as a counter-terrorism policy) comes up, I have encountered more than once the “What’s the alternative?” question. That is, how do we stop terrorism if we don’t kill alleged terrorists without trial?

My main reaction to such questions is to think “I don’t have to provide an alternative.” We should simply reject assassination as wrong and then, having ruled out such acts, consider what would be acceptable alternative counter-terrorism policies. The same could be said of torture. The notion that assassination or torture should be viewed as “open to consideration pending a practical alternative” strikes me as a very slanted starting point for discussion.

Still, the problem remains that not answering the question “What’s the alternative?” will come across as evasive and not promote constructive dialog. Not providing an alternative is especially unfortunate if the other person is sympathetic to the consistent life ethic advocate’s position but is held back from agreement by the sense that no nonviolent solution is available.

To illustrate this point with another example, I have seen such a failure of dialog occur in an exchange between Father Wilson Miscamble, an historian, and Christopher Tollefson, a professor of philosophy, on the United States’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Father Miscamble, arguing that the bombings were justified, pointed to what he saw as the lack of alternatives that would cost fewer lives. As he put it, “the bombings entailed the least harm of the available paths to victory,” and he criticized Tollefson for not identifying a realistic alternative. “If someone can present to me a viable and more ‘moral way’ to have defeated the Japanese and ended World War II,” Miscamble wrote, “I will change my position.”[4]

Tollefson argued that the bombings weren’t justified because intentionally killing civilians is always wrong. He declined to discuss alternatives, writing, “I deny the responsibility to give much consideration to viable alternatives in this case.” Tollefson simply said that identifying a practical alternative to bombing the Japanese cities “once immoral options had been ruled out, was a matter of military expertise and prudence.”[5]

Like probably most other consistent life ethic advocates, I agree with Tollefson rather than Miscamble on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I also sympathize with Tollefson’s position that he need not provide an alternative course of action to oppose the bombings. To the degree questions about alternatives are posed to open as a subject for serious consideration the justice of deliberately annihilating cities, I am also resistant to such questions. Nevertheless, I think not engaging at all with the question of alternative policies was a mistake. Because Tollefson did not address Miscamble’s central concern, I think the two (who clearly had much common ground in their views) ended up talking past each other rather than having a genuinely cooperative dialog.        

To avoid this problem, proposing a mutual exchange of views again might be helpful. Perhaps when someone asks what the alternative is to some type of violence, we could answer as best we can and then pose our own question: “Maybe my alternative solution has problems, but, since you asked about alternatives, let me ask you: Do you think a practical alternative to [this type of violence] would be a good thing? Even if my solution isn’t the best, is it still worth looking for alternatives?”

If the other person agrees to this much, then the consistent life ethic advocate can point to a clear area of common ground. Both people agree that the violence being discussed is sufficiently undesirable that an alternative is worth finding. This might help restore a spirit of cooperation to the discussion.

Conclusion

Dialog with those we disagree with is always challenging, especially when difficult questions are involved. I am not suggesting the approaches I have proposed are the best or only ways of handling these questions. I think, however, that consistent life ethic advocates should find honest ways of answering such questions while trying to move dialog from an adversarial to a cooperative stance. I have offered some thoughts on how we might do so, and I encourage others to develop their own approaches so we can have good, constructive dialogs on life issues.    

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.      

Notes

[1] Josh Brahm, “Two Practical Dialogue Tips for Changing More Minds about Abortion,” Consistent Life Network blog, September 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/35Cveqe.

[2] Frederica Mathewes-Green, “From Pro-choice to Pro-life,” Frederica.com, December 31, 1999, https://bit.ly/3maoNkl.

[3] Equal Rights Institute, “Why Do They Always Ask about Rape,” August 19, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Rn0oda.

[4] Wilson D. Miscamble, “The Least Evil Option: A Defense of Harry Truman,” Public Discourse, December 12, 2011, https://bit.ly/33isv2E.

[5] Christopher O. Tollefson, “No Intentional Killing of the Innocent: A Response to Miscamble and O’Brien,” Public Discourse, December 19, 2011, https://bit.ly/2ZwEHvG.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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