gender, language, politics

Women’s Lives Matter

In an important and provocative op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Katha Pollitt discusses the connection between anti-abortion rhetoric and violence such as the recent mass murder at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic. Pollitt does a great job connecting many of the dots, but some questions remain to be explored. One that continues to puzzle me is this:


Why is the rhetoric of the anti-abortion side so much more successful than that of the pro-abortion side? The latter make use of calm reasoned arguments, the former emotional bombast about “babies” and “murderers” (neither of whom are actually involved in abortions). Why does calm reason get kicked to the curb time and again, for over forty years, since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade?


Here are a few suggested answers to that question.


One is the cynical but simple thought that calm reason seldom trumps emotional arousal. We like to think of ourselves as the cognitive and rational species, and by this designation to justify our dominance over all other forms of life. But when it comes to the crunch, we are not especially rational. Reason seldom persuades; weeping and shouting work like magic. There is a rhetorical Gresham’s Law at work: bad rhetoric drives out good.


Moreover, and not unrelatedly, actions speak louder than words. Physical wins over verbal. Since the pro-abortion side doesn’t have buildings to bomb, it doesn’t attract the same kinds, or numbers, of passionate adherents as the antis. (Possibly, too, people sympathetic to reproductive rights are less likely to be angry and terrified enough to commit mass murder.) Our unwillingness to equate words, at least sometimes, with actions – to grasp the principle that verbal violence can do harm parallel to physical violence – allows dangerous propagandists to get away, one is tempted to say (and one will), with murder: words by themselves cannot kill, but they can make killing happen: they can be accessories to murder.


It appears that the Planned Parenthood murderer was encouraged to act by the utterances of Republican presidential candidates, especially the gender traitor Carly Fiorina, about seeing videos of “dismembered babies” in Planned Parenthood clinics. That Fiorina’s assertion appears to be a pastiche of lies built on forgeries is of no consequence to her fans; Fiorina asserts it as truth, so it is true.


Fiorina disclaims any responsibility for the murders: she was only using her words, like any intelligent four-year-old. The deeds were done by a “mentally disturbed” person, Robert Dear. So “mental illness,” not Carly Fiorina (or Robert Dear, for that matter) is to blame.


But this shuffling off of responsibility is a rhetorical ploy, no more. Here as so often, Republicans win rhetorical points by offering arguments that seem clear and simple, but are false. One is that if there are two possible explanations for something, you must choose one and only one. So if we understand ourselves to have only two options,


  • Carly Fiorina’s verbal attacks on PP are responsible for the murders; or
  • Robert Dear’s shooting is responsible for the murders,


it is absurd to deny the validity of (2). So if we are forced to select only one, then we will have to select (2) alone. But in fact there is no logical requirement to select only one; rather, we have to attribute equal amounts of responsibility to each. Even crazy people with guns do not shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics for no reason whatsoever. Dear did not get the idea to do so out of his own head. He heard an authoritative voice, repeated over and over, telling him about baby parts. Just as in the past, schizophrenics today hear demonic voices telling them to kill certain people. Only today the demons are real people in televised debates. The responsibility for the action belongs both to the demon and the schizophrenic.


Take another case where logical fallacy trumps logic because people want it to. The Republicans are desperate to derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign – by any means possible. To this end, they are working hard to document Clinton’s “lies,” whether in fact they are lies or not, so when someone points out untruthfulness among Republicans, they pooh-pooh it.


For instance, consider the way some conservative commentators have dealt with a couple of Republican candidates’ dubious statements, Fiorina’s screed against Planned Parenthood and Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that, on 9/11, he himself saw from his Manhattan window “thousands of Muslims” in Jersey City cheering and dancing in triumph. Trump, like Fiorina, is sticking to his story despite a lack of any credible evidence. (Republicans see marvelous sights from their windows. Remember how Sarah Palin could see Russia from hers?)


It is safe to call both of these statements “lies”: the speaker knows they are not true; the speaker intends for the hearer to believe them; they are being told to give the speaker some advantage, and/or to harm someone else.


On two recent TV shows, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was asked about the Republican falsehoods. He responded by calling Hillary Clinton a “liar” based on her story about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia while First Lady. I am willing to concede that the event Clinton “recalled” didn’t happen. But was it a “lie,” and even if it was, was it as serious a lie as Trump’s or Fiorina’s?


It seems possible to me that Clinton might be conflating events in her recollection of a long-past trip, or was recalling warnings she received as if they were realities. Or, worst-case, she wanted to tell a good story and inflate her resumé. Of course we should avoid self-glamorization. But was hers a lie?


Recall that a lie must be: known to be false by its speaker and designed to harm someone else. It is possible that Clinton was innocently conflating events, but even if she was purposely telling a story she knew to be false, it was harmless and couldn’t hurt anyone (or even do her any significant good). Fiorina’s and Trump’s concoctions, on the other hand, were both deliberate and clearly harmful.


By turning the question from Trump and Fiorina to Clinton Hewitt was employing the logical fallacy tu quoque (Latin for “you too”). Even if both instances are examples of the same thing (say, if he had turned the question from Trump’s fabrication to Fiorina’s), the tu quoque argument is fallacious because it is not responsive to the question about Trump. But here Hewitt is committing not merely a logical fallacy, but a false fallacy: there is no equation between what Clinton did and what Trump did; there is no quoque at all.


The Republicans use language about abortion in similar insidious and deceptive ways. But why do intelligent people accept their lies so readily? Because they want to: the lies support a coded message: keep women down. Americans pretend that (unlike evil ISIS) we no longer believe this; our superficial narrative is that women are equal to men and we like that. We are happy to provide examples to support this argument. Women have had the vote for nearly a century; there are fourteen women in the U.S. Senate, and one of the candidates for the presidency this time will almost certainly be a woman. More women than men graduate from college; women are getting an ever-larger percentage of prestigious jobs. Sounds pretty persuasive, right?


But that is mere surface appearance. On that surface, yes, America looks pretty good. Underneath, where we don’t look, won’t look, there are all kinds of behaviors afoot that send out that covert and coded message: keep women down. In most of these cases, the surface message cleverly hides that coded one, but underneath it’s there. The epidemic of rape and sexual assault in colleges and universities, the reluctance of administrators to act on victims’ complaints, and the glee with which the media take the (“alleged,” we must say) rapists’ side, are all about discouraging women from getting and using the education that they need to achieve parity with men. We pretend that the epidemic is nonexistent, or at least that what the rapes are about is the normal sexual desires of normal fraternity boys. But desire has nothing to do with these assaults; power is what they are about: they are gender, not sex, crimes. The anti-abortion arguments work in the same covert way, and it is the same coded message that so many find attractive. Because these messages are covert and coded, it is impossible to answer them so the antis’ case appears unanswerably right.


The pro-abortion side has an overt message that ought to win unquestioned support: “women’s lives matter.” There is no covert or coded message: it is what it is. And “lives” in this context does not refer simply to physical existence. Women’s lives acquire worth when women can understand themselves as fully contributing members of their society, people who can make choices that will enable them to be all that they can be. To tell women that they have no control – over their bodies or minds – and that they have no business making choices is to deny that women are fully human or fully alive. (But zygotes, the the antis’ say, are both.) Until all Americans believe that women’s lives matter, abortion rights will remain in limbo.


A final problem stands in the way of reproductive autonomy. Liberals are wussies. Conservatives are tough. And fortune favors the bold. Conservatives are not afraid to yell; they are not afraid to insult. They are not afraid to lie. As Pollitt notes, abortion opponents are terrorists – gender terrorists – and proud of it. To them, zygotes are “babies” and doctors who perform abortions, “murderers.” They spit on semantics; like Humpty Dumpty, for them a word means what they want it to mean, no more and no less. They are spectacularly unapologetic when caught in their deceptions. They are not pathologically concerned with others’ opinions. They do not change their name because someone has disparaged a name they have given themselves. They get away with behaving tough for a reason: their coded message is one that attracts a great deal of sympathy. So even if they cross the line of propriety, morality and decency, a lot of people will sympathize. Pro-abortion advocates have no such support to fall back on. We are advocating a product that all too many people won’t buy. But it’s worse than that. We won’t even try.


Since 1975, we have been ladies, doing our very best to be polite and offend no one, and tolerating being reviled and insulted and degraded in every way, under the theory that if we are wimpy enough people will like us or at least feel sorry for us, and therefore they will come to sympathize with us.


Guess what? That doesn’t work. What you get from turning the other cheek, the other cheek, and the third cheek (however anatomically difficult) is mere contempt: if you don’t believe in your cause enough to defend your own language, you must not have much of a case. We gave up “pro-abortion”; we gave up “feminism”; we gave up “reproductive rights”; we are tempted to give up “war on women.” What are we left with? Not what we should have.


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