Yesterday in a brilliantly titled piece, So Long and Thanks for All the Intersex Fish (If you don’t get the Douglas Adams reference… I’m sorry.), Simcha Fisher writes about how “Michael Potter, the founder and CEO of the popular, 45-year-old organic foods company Eden Foods, does not want to be forced to pay for his employees’ water-polluting, cancer-causing contraceptives.” She discusses the liberal outrage at this decision, which is totally consistent with Eden Food’s organic health food philosophy. (Eden has never provided coverage for contraceptives to its employees.)
When I posted a link to her article on Facebook I commented: “I really don’t understand why more environmentalists and vegetarian-crunchy types aren’t all over this. Except that the ideology of “reproductive rights” overshadows the environmental and health impacts of contraception. In fifty years people are going to look at the Pill in the same way we now look at cigarettes and wonder what the hell we are thinking.”
A friend replied that it’s doubtful since cigarettes didn’t exist in the service of an ideology. “Yes,” says I, “That’s why I placed it at fifty years out. I think it will take at least that long for science to overcome ideology. I refuse to accept that it will never happen.”
She responds: “I guess science will overcome the pill if a bigger, better form of birth control is invented. Because it’s not just ideology. It’s the whole structure of society that you’re talking about here. And yes, in 50 years, it might shift. But I can’t envision it. Perhaps a utopian novel is in your future…”
A brilliant suggestion. (Except for the small fact that I’m no novelist.) But what was funny ws that it fed directly into a line of thought I’d been following earlier that day. I wrote: “Actually I’ve been pondering something along that line. I think perhaps the failure of the culture wars is in part a failure to imagine how the heck we can even get there from here. I know I can’t quite imagine a way for our society to go shuck the sexual revolution and return to more traditional forms. How could that genie ever go back in the bottle? Absent major disaster, war, famine, something catastrophic that would force people to reevaluate a whole bunch of cultural assumptions and practices. I’m having trouble imagining it without making it in some part post acpocalyptic. What would a successful nonviolent Sexual Reformation look like?”
My friend points out that one dilemma would be retaining and promoting *real* gender equality—to the extent that it exists—while shucking off the illusory. A good point, though for me that’s a bit of a side track. Maybe. I have to think about it some more. But for me the biggest problems are philosophical: moral relativism. When we can’t even agree on what is good and bad, and we can’t agree that there is a universal human nature, well we are talking of a cultural rift that I’m not sure can be bridged. And there are the problems of consumerism and materialism as well.
Utopia is much harder to imagine than dystopia. There are so many ways things can go wrong and so few they can go right. I’m thinking you would need a handful of highly charismatic leaders showing up in several places all at the same time. A certain synchronicity. A crunchy-environmentalist type who is able to successfully convince large numbers of people that true environmentalism is anti-Pill. A very charismatic Protestant who also rejects birth control and makes a convincing case not only to mainline Protestants but also evangelicals. Or maybe you need one mainline protestant and one evangelical. In other words, it would have to be a coalition effort. With Catholics and Muslims and conservative Jews and being a given. But you’d have to have someone who was able to mobilize the vast numbers of Catholics who don’t embrace the Church’s teaching. Yeah, I think a scientific advance would be easier than a cultural revolution. And easiest of all would be an apocalyptic scenario. But I would prefer not to go there. I’d prefer to imagine the peaceful revolution that is won without bloodshed, or at least without a major disaster. Perhaps I’d be willing to consider an equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement. Some injuries and passive resistance, some deaths even, but not full-scale war.
But wait. Hold on a moment. Are we just imagining a contraceptive-free world? That’s hard but easier than imagining a world which has returned to a traditional sexual ethos: marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman which is open to children, which supports and nurtures all children. And then there is a further possibility: a utopia where all the “culture of death” issues are resolved and the “Culture of Life” is restored: no more abortion, no more no-fault divorce, no more euthanasia, no more contraception, no more death penalty. A Culture of Life. Wouldn’t that be something? Can you even imagine it? What would it look like and how on earth can we get there from here?
Also, the problem with utopias is that what looks like utopia to one person is another person’s dystopia. My utopia would seem like a nightmare if I described it to many of my more liberal friends. So how do we get there from here? I don’t want to impose a totalitarian regime on anyone. I want a true Utopia where everyone feels free. Oh there’s the rub indeed.
Now let’s step away from drafting the utopian novel for a moment and consider the present moment. My utopian novel dilemma reveals a huge problem with the Pro Life movement: How can we win the Culture War if we don’t know what victory looks like? How can we get there if we don’t have a clear idea of what our destination looks like or what the road map is? All we have is tactics, no strategy, no long term game plan much less an endgame. Really all I see is a rearguard action. People chipping away at already established laws and trying to prevent new laws from being passed. People trying to make a case to win hearts and minds, but not terribly successfully.
Do we know what victory in the Culture War even looks like? Do we know how to get there from here?
And here’s another problem, on a tactical level, but not unrelated. Most people engaging in that battle of winning hearts and minds aren’t trained. Most armchair apologists are flailing, and probably doing more harm than good, because they are more focused on being right than on really trying to win people’s trust, to build bridges and make common ground wherever they are able. Most people not only don’t know how to argue, they also don’t know why to argue.
In comment box wars I often get most frustrated by people I agree with who are making a botched job arguing with people I don’t agree with. As a former writing teacher, I am especially galled by the fact that so many people don’t have a grasp of basic rhetorical principles. So many people don’t even know how to try to see things from their opponent’s perspective. They can’t figure out why the person they disagree with believes what they believe. They assume ill will. They assume the opponent is evil. Or they assume good faith but think the kind of argument that convinced them should convince anyone. They argue with a ghost, their own past selves, or their atheist brother-in-law, instead of the person with whom they are actually speaking. They make too many assertions and ask too few questions. They don’t seek to find common ground. They don’t call on authorities their opponent will find persuasive. (Which is why LifeSite news might be good for educating yourself but is a terrible resource for sending someone to who doesn’t agree with you.)
For example on the Eden Foods page many people were threatening to boycott Eden Food and I saw many well-meaning, good-hearted Catholic apologists arguing back about why they supported Potter’s legal battle. But they were all arguing about religious freedom. To me that seemed absolutely the wrong talking point. It seemed blindingly obvious to me that the audience there were people who believe in organic foods. So talking about how the Pill is a pollutant and a carcinogen as Simcha does in her piece seems to me to be a way to seek common ground with the type of people who would have previously had a brand loyalty to Eden, people who care about their health and about the environment. Shouldn’t we be focusing on telling them about natural alternatives to the Pill that are better for women’s health and better for the environment? Telling them about the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning, how it is science and not “the rhythm method”. I really didn’t see why the religious angle was coming up at all.
Again, I don’t think most of the people arguing there had a clear idea what the aim of the discussion was. They didn’t know what victory would look like. To me victory would have been to have one person become a little curious about NFP and maybe concede that perhaps there might be something to the claim that the Pill is polluting our waterways and might be a carcinogen, that it might not be as safe for women as the pharmaceutical industry claims. Victory might be to have one person concede that Eden Foods was being consistent in standing up for their organic principles and not “selling out to a right-wing agenda.”
I’m thinking it would be a great mitzvah if someone were to put together a Khan Academy style series of videos on rhetoric and practical apologetics, teaching people how to assess the rhetorical situation, how to adapt their arguments to fit the person they are dialoguing with. I know that Catholic Voices has been doing some good work in that direction. Their book, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues, is a must-read. (Sadly I gave away my copy before I finished it. Must buy another.) But their focus is mostly on preparing lay people to interact with the media. But I think their approach might be useful for anyone who has a blog, engages on Facebook and Twitter and other social media. It’s at least a start. The fact is that unless we understand that having the Truth on our side isn’t enough, we will never make any headway.
Do we know what victory looks like? Do we really believe that planting a seed is enough and trust in the Holy Spirit to water it and make it grow? Are we too focused on winning or on being right and not enough on helping people to cross the threshold, to trust?
I don’t tend to write about these kinds of cultural issues on my blog because I don’t feel that fighting the culture wars head on is a mission of this blog. I’m more interested in building bridges and having individual dialogues than in beating the drum and grandstanding. I have too many friends with whom I disagree and I want to always make sure I’m meeting them with love. But I do feel passionately that standing up for Life is a part of my call as a follower of Christ, the Author of Life. I’m just trying to work out how best to live that call here in this space. However this I am sure of, that we need to do a better job. We’re failing. I know what failure looks like all too well. It’s the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when someone on Facebook posts something that someone else will read as hateful and mean spirited, whether it was intended that way or not. It’s when Catholics spend more time sniping at each other than in asking how they can best show Christ’s love. I know I fail in that every day. But I do keep trying, picking myself up, apologizing and beginning again.
It’s late and I’m not sure I have a resolution. I’m not sure I’ve laid out my ideas clearly or made my case well. But I’m going to keep pondering these two lines of thinking. Will you join me? What do you think?
Bearing continuing the conversation with some great responses at her blog. Check out Victory and rhetoric and First principles of good rhetoric (good meaning “good.”).
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