January 24, 2006

Roe v Wade: Reflecting on the Culture Wars

Thirty-four years ago the US Supreme Court set off a firestorm when they ruled that women had the right to choose. This ruling has been the seed of the most extreme culture wars during the last century and has been responsible for converting much of previously populist America to the conservative philosophy as Tom Frank noted in his book, What's the Matter With Kansas? In his intro he talks about a friend's father who had been a civil rights liberal and voted for Barbara Jordon before he decided the definitive issue was abortion. In the eighties, his friend's father was a teacher in the local schools and when his son sang the praises of Milton Friedman, the father told him he thought this form of economic conservatism was a bunch of bunk.

It was the dad, though, who was eventually converted. These days he votes for the farthest-right Republicans he can find on the ballot. The particular issue that brought him over was abortion. A devout Catholic, my friend's dad was persuaded in the early nineties that the sanctity of the fetus outweighed all of his other concerns, and from there he gradually accepted the whole pantheon of conservative devil-figures: the elite media and the American Civil Liberties Union, contemptuous of our values; the la-di-da feminists; the idea that Christians are vilely persecuted -- right here in the U.S. of A. It doesn't even bother him, really, when his new hero Bill O'Reilly blasts the teachers' union as a group that "does not love America."

After the ruling in 1972, many people such as this teacher have been radicalized and others, such as Tom DeLay and Randall Terry (who at his most extreme has advocated domestic terrorism) have used the issue to gain power by demonizing those who don't follow their dictates. And the battlelines have created situations that can be quite disruptive to the communities that are targeted by the demagogues.

Yet, there are other people who are doing their best to lower the rhetoric and to rebuild trust in order to bring back some sanity and some common ground that allow people on opposite sides to find the capacity to work together to solve the underlying problems, ie: how to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancies so that abortion is not needed.

Three years ago I heard about a program started in Boston after the murder of two clinic workers by John Salvi in 1994 where people from both sides came together to find out how to bridge the divide. The program they started, the Public Conversations Project, is still going strong and while they continue to work on the abortion issue, they have expanded their focus to working on some of the other hot-button issues that divide us and threaten to tear our communities apart.

I cannot tell you how grateful I was to hear that program on Talk of the Nation that day. Our country was yet to be cast into the war in Iraq, but it was clear that the divisions between those who backed the President and those of us who did not were being purposely exacerbated by the rhetoric that led to the war. How refreshing it was to hear about people who passionately cared about their issues, but were willing to work and listen in order to defuse the anger and distrust. Here's what I posted on the dKos Open Thread that day:

Right now, I'm listening to a replay of TOTN's discussion today about people who have been trying to find ways to discuss the abortion issue for a number of years. They have found that things that are critical in making real progress on these types of issues are based on: * civility * making sure everyone can talk * the process makes it possible for this dialogue to happen.

Some of the notes I've captured from this show are:

When the level of anxiety is high, a very tight control of the discussion is necessary. (In other words, the more distrustful of the other, the more rigid the conversation must be controlled to make sure everyone has a chance to express themselves.)

What they found out:
-avoid the hotbottons.
-it was necessary to learn a new language and to avoid words that shutdown dialogue
- it was very hard to express yourself without using the hotbutton words

Was it worth it? The participants found that the conversation was an incredible intellectual challenge:
* it is challenging when you have to dig very deeply to explain why you believe what you believe
* it is challenging to listen carefully to the other side so that you hear what they are saying rather than what you think they are saying.

One of the things they agreed to was that their world views were so different that they could never convince the other side that they were correct but that they found that they no longer felt the need to demonize the other side.

There are some world views we will never be able to fully understand but that doesn't mean that we have to demonize and hate someone who has that world view. What we need is to find ways to bridge our differences in ways that respect each other and allow us to work together.

Do visit PCP's website for some more information about this program. Our country, indeed, our world, desperately needs more real conversation that allows us to work together to solve the problems our world faces.

So, what conversations are you participating in today?

Posted by Mary at January 24, 2006 12:05 AM | Women | Technorati links |