Note before reading: haven’t intended to be writing about current events nearly as much as I have been, but wanted to make explicit the reasoning, beyond hottakes on the culture wars.
In Recapture the Rapture, I made the case that all identity politics are flawed at a structural level if the collective pain we may experience in the coming decades dwarfs the specific IOUs demanded by any particular tribe or group. (that’s the “Hang together or hang separately” riff).
I also made the point that Dark Triad Authoritarians are hijacking both conservative and progressive movements, leaving the moderate middle with seemingly no voice and nowhere to stand. (that’s “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity” riff).
Hopefully by exploring these Third Rail topics from a fresh perspective, we can model how we can still come together and find higher ground, in time to do what needs to be done for the good of all. (plus, the frameworks that we teach in our courses directly inform these insights and arguments, so hopefully you can get an embodied sense of those tools put to good use in complex and consequential situations).
Onto the heart of today’s matter…
It's been the elephant in the room of the culture wars for at least the last decade––conservatives keep snagging all the best rallying cries. Meanwhile the Left keeps shooting themselves in the foot, scoring goals in their own net (and any other self-defeating metaphors you can think of).
Turn on Fox News and you'll hear a lot about Patriotism, Courage, Duty, Honor, Faith, Community, Tradition. Those are hearty, memorable, powerful concepts, with centuries of reinforcement and momentum. All you've got to do is pluck those strings, and they hum with ancient resonance.
Turn on MSNBC or HuffPo and what do we get? Privilege, intersectionality, de-centering, dead-naming, decolonization, "problematizing", BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S(!!!). Word salad that if you haven't spent a few dreaded years trapped inside the Ivory Tower, have no idea what they mean, and might not agree with even if you did. Pluck these strings and you get buzzing minor chords that leave you feeling distinctly unresolved.
Great for serving as shibboleths to separate out the Woke from the Unwashed, but absolutely terrible for persuading the moderate middle of voters that you and they have common cause around issues that matter most.
If there was a Progressive Marketing Fairy, surely they'd want to wiggle their wings and time travel back to 2013 and stage an intervention as #blacklivesmatter was coined.
"Hey guys," the Fairy might have gently inquired, "are we sure we want to frame things this way? I mean, I 100% get the intent of emphasizing the dignity and value of Black folks’ lives, but just neuro-linguistically, if you call out one color, you prime a listener to immediately imagine its opposite. So in naming it Black Lives Matter, you're setting up its antonym, White Lives Matter, and that might not be the best idea?
Why don't we take a page out of Gandhi's playbook, and instead of protesting against things, march for things. Remember, he didn't even like calling it "non-violence" because it still contained the word violence inside it!
Let's take the linguistic high ground, and call it All Lives Matter, and use it to illustrate the systemic injustices and violence against people of color, and Call Up (vs. Call Out) everyone to value our lives as much as those with historic and institutional privilege?" After all, who can take issue with something as noble and inclusive as stating the obvious, that All Our Lives Matter? That's a call to arms that could rally the world to social justice.
(cue Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingrahm rubbing their hands in glee)
Same thing with the Abortion Wars. It's nowhere near as obvious as the Black vs. All Lives branding fail, but if you had to score it, standing “For Life” is a generically stronger meme than standing “For Choices.” The former is absolute and almost sacrosanct. The latter feels vaguer, opinionated, possibly even fickle.
But there's a real opportunity here for Progressives to pull an aikido move, and instead of digging in with both heels, to roll with the energy of their opponents and win the day.
"So you're Pro Life?" the Progressive Marketing Fairy might ask a bunch of red-faced Evangelicals protesting outside a Planned Parenthood. "Great! So are we! I mean, who in their right mind would be Pro Death?
"You care profoundly for the rights and dignity of unborn children? Great! So do we. And for the mothers that grow them. But we don't believe there's anything magic about which side of the cervix that little kiddo is on. So if we can agree that they're precious and worthy of our defense in utero, can we also agree to keep protecting them with healthy pre and post natal care, and set them up for success with high quality early childhood education so they have the best shot at becoming thriving citizens that can help make America great (again)?
"What's that you say? Abortion is a traumatic procedure that deeply impacts a woman's body, heart and mind and should absolutely positively not be considered a casual medical procedure?
Thanks for caring about all those mothers-to-be. We can agree there too! It's a profound choice to be simultaneously faced with conceiving a life and having to terminate it. Few women who have ever been confronted with that decision take it lightly. So can we do everything possible to ensure healthy, accurate and effective sex education, including distributing contraceptives (up to and including Morning After Pills) so that as few women as possible have to face that decision?
(And here's current stats on exactly who that woman seeking an abortion is: She Is Already a Mother. Is in Her Late 20s. Attended Some College. Has a Low Income. Is Unmarried. Is in Her First 6 Weeks of Pregnancy. Is Having Her First Abortion. Lives in a Blue State.)
Even in the developed Western World, only 50% of all children born are intentionally conceived. That has huge implications for health and happiness, and economic, educational and familial stability so can we both agree to do everything we can to ensure #everychildsawantedchild?”
"Ah, but you also believe that life begins at conception," the Progressive Fairy continues, "so that terminating any pregnancy is murder of an innocent child of God? Well, we can agree on the first part––sperm meets egg, and a little flash of green zinc Shazams into existence. It's literally the miracle of Life, and I'd be hard pressed to argue that something deeply profound hasn't happened in that moment. But, the second part? When that little zygote becomes an embryo becomes a fetus becomes a child (and how its rights are to be balanced against those of its mother, and possibly older siblings)––well that's a much harder question for us to sort through together.
So hard, in fact, that we might have to go all the way back to one of your Biblical favorites, King Solomon for some advice.
Remember that famous time in the Old Testament where two women were fighting over a newborn child, both claiming it as their own? Do you remember what ol' Solomon said? He said "Cut that little sausage in half, and then you both get your fair share!” (knowing that the true birth mother would never agree, and would give up her child to keep them safe). #solomonicwisdomFTW
But in this instance, we don't have two women both claiming the right to decide the future of that sweet little kid. We've got a bunch of old white dudes in black robes, or Brooks Brothers suits, deadbeat dads, (and potentially dedicated fathers) presuming to weigh in.
So WWSD? What Would Solomon Do?
He'd likely come up with something canny like: "Ok Opinionated Old White Guys, and self-appointed theologians, let's say you're right? You get to chime in on what happens with that dear sweet hypothetical unborn child and its mother in the exact proportion that you are willing to legally enshrine ironclad federal and state protections for that mother, that child and paternal child support FOR LIFE.”
Bet that would separate the truly dedicated from the merely opinionated in a heartbeat. If you're dead set on #mansplaining what happens inside a woman's womb, you've got to ante up for a seat at that particular table. #putuporshutup. (think I read that in the Bible someplace, maybe Fallopians 3:17?)
And while we're playing this game, we might as well go Womb to Tomb on this whole thing.
The Progressive Marketing Fairy, sensing her momentum, presses the Pro Life folks for a final concession.
"So you say that you are deeply committed to Family Values, and that's why you fight so hard on these issues? Great! So are we. We also believe in the sanctity of marriage––and that loving families form the bedrock of healthy communities. We believe that dedicated relationships matter. We believe children thrive when cared for by a committed family that loves them and enjoys all the legal, social and economic protections available. (We also believe that who we love is up to us and that family structure has always been fluid and adaptive over time). #ittakesafamily
To recap how we can all take a unifying stand for the power and dignity of being Pro Life, it might go something like this:
Now will that satisfy everyone? Not likely.
Folks who are deeply dug in on the ironclad "My body My choice" side have tended to diminish the miracle of conception and the humanity of zygotes, embryos and (depending on the intensity of their position, fetuses). For them, an abortion is a simple medical procedure with minimal ethical impact and no additional stakeholders beyond the patient.
But that's not an intuitive position for many people to take on and goes against thousands of years of cultural and religious norms, so it requires tons of energy to keep propping up.
Folks on the other side, who see the vulnerable life of the unborn as the only issue, can be unwilling to acknowledge the humanity of those mothers-to-be. Nor do they seem nearly as concerned about child welfare once they're actually in this world. For them, the battle is starkly Good vs Evil and takes place entirely in the womb.
And that's not remotely congruent with widely held commitments to social welfare and justice for our communities IRL.
This broader stand for Life that we've been exploring could offer the kind of subtle shift to bring us back to the collective bargaining table. There we could see each other's deeply held values and commitments and honor them while acknowledging that the most extreme positions of "our camp" may need to be conceded to allow us to find higher ground together.
So as we approach Mother's Day, it feels timely and appropriate to honor the incredible commitment and sacrifices that all of our mothers made bringing us into this world. To appreciate the vulnerability, grief and loss that have often accompanied conception, gestation, and birth. It's our collective wound, and our mammas have borne the brunt of it. Generation after generation.
And really, it’s ludicrous if we can’t find common cause here. There are much darker evils to face, and much more suffering to come, if we can’t cross the aisles and the picket lines, to rally together to protect that most basic of our sacred responsibilities.
As old King Solomon would've put it, L'Chaim (To Life!)
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