Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.
People are invested in their political positions. Political conversations tend to generate heat. When we perceive that our cherished positions are threatened, we become defensive. There is the risk of shame. Shame breeds defensiveness, and often anger. It is not possible to have a constructive political conversation when people are feeling threatened, defensive, ashamed or angry. To solve problems together, people must feel respected and safe enough to express themselves without fear of derision.
The first step to having a political discussion is to actively affirm the dignity and humanity of one’s partner. There is a need to foster an initial sense of mutual empathy, compassion and credulity. When we extend empathy and compassion to our partners, we seek to understand and acknowledge the suffering and concerns that motivate them to take the positions that they do.
Compassion is important. But it’s not quite enough. Beyond compassion, it is important to approach the other with a sense of credulity — the idea that even if the other’s views don’t make sense to us, they make sense to them. If this is so, it becomes important to try to understand how the other’s view and commitments make sense to them, even if – and especially if – we disagree.
One way to cultivate compassion for one’s partner is to listen to their story. When we approach another with whom we disagree, it is helpful to acknowledge that there is much about the other person that we do not understand. We show that we care about the other person’s experience by actively soliciting and bearing witness to their stories about their experiences with the issue in question.
To illustrate, imagine a dialogue between April and Justine who take different positions on the issue of abortion. If we listen carefully to their stories, we can begin to gain an appreciation for why the other adopts views they do. April[i] describes mixed feelings about her experiences with her own abortion. Her choice to have an abortion was not easy, but felt necessary against the backdrop of a feeling of powerlessness:
I had just told my husband that I was leaving him when I got the news that I was pregnant. At the time, I already had two daughters under the age of six. I was figuring out how I was going to be a single mother with a demanding job that paid very little. I was leaving him because he’d emptied my bank account and found my hidden cash to pay for groceries. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I couldn’t raise my girls in that environment anymore. And there was no way I could bring another child into the chaos that was our lives at that moment…
I have never regretted my abortion. I don’t regret the two daughters I had with him, even though he proved to be a deadbeat dad who hasn’t seen his kids in nearly a decade. They’re now grown women, both working with children. I was able to go back to school, complete my degree. I found a temp job, which became a permanent assistant position, went back to school, and eventually became a manager, a homeowner and have raised these girls without child support.
I did it, but it wasn’t easy. And I don’t think we would’ve turned out with the lives we now have if there had been another mouth to feed. Nor, frankly, should I have to explain myself or my situation to anyone. I know I made mistakes, but who hasn’t? I’m proud of who I’ve become and who my girls are. None of it would’ve been possible had I not been able to exercise control over my body.
What would it mean for Alice’s “opponent” – someone who espouses an anti-abortion rights position — to bear witness to this narrative? The task would be to simply listen – without interruption or judgment. The goal of Alice’s interlocutor would be to understand and even empathize how Alice experienced the event in question. If possible, Alice’s partner would try to put aside one’s own views and experiences long enough to imagine what it would feel like to experience the world as Alice experiences it. The goal is not to agree or disagree, but simply to understand what it would feel be like to be Alice – someone who feels powerless and resourceless in the face of an unwanted pregnancy.
Justine’s[ii] Story comes in the form of an interview in which she describes her beliefs about abortion. Justine believes that abortion should be prohibited in almost all cases. In this discussion, the interviewer attempted to challenge Justine’s position on abortion. He introduced what he thought would be compelling counter examples to Justine’s belief that abortion should be prohibited in virtually all cases. Justine’s highly personal responses stunned the interviewer, who expected her to waver when addressing questions related to the permissibility of abortion under conditions of rape and threat to the mother’s life.
|JUSTINE: I believe that life begins at conception. Basic: life begins at conception. I believe that sometimes women getting positions that oh my goodness, they’re pregnant. They didn’t expect it. They didn’t want it, they didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that you need to have an abortion. There are so many options out there. Adoption, a thousand percent. There’s so many people, so many couples that want to have babies…|
|INTERVIEWER: Okay. So, would it be your position that that abortion under all circumstances would not be could not be legal.|
|INTERVIEWER: Does that include under conditions of rape?|
|JUSTINE: Yes. My sister in law her mom was raped and I have to say, Tom, my sister in law’s brother awesome guy understands where he came from is a pro-life guy. His mom Lauren. She is a pro-lifer. And she had this wonderful child and he’s a great son and, who cares how he came about in the world. He’s a wonderful person. Every life matters.|
|INTERVIEWER: Would it also extend to the life of the mother if her life was threatened?|
|JUSTINE: Maybe. So, let me tell you, I was 40 and they said, “you know what about your health?” And I said, I don’t care. I don’t believe in abortion. And I got my baby at 40.|
|INTERVIEWER: What about if there were complications?|
|JUSTINE: I had complications.|
|INTERVIEWER: What about if there were complications and there was a life threatening event and you’re on the table…|
|JUSTINE: I had life threatening complications. I did. I did!|
|INTERVIEWER: Okay. All right. Good. So what I’m hearing you say, so far, is that you are against abortion because you believe that every life is…|
|JUSTINE: Life Matters. Every life matters. Every life matters.|
|INTERVIEWER: …If both lives matter. How do you decide which life to save?|
|JUSTINE: So, you know, I was sort of put in that position, and I didn’t want to not have my child…I made the choice… I just I think that our medical profession is so quick to say abort. Abort, abort! Um, and I just, I just don’t think it’s right…|
|INTERVIEWER: What if what if there were a woman who was not willing to make that risk?|
|JUSTINE: I can’t I just, I just can’t wrap my head around a woman who wants to have a child willing to abort that child.|
What would bearing witness to Justine’s experience look like – especially for someone who adopts a position of supporting abortion rights? For such a person, the idea that abortion is impermissible even in the face of rape and maternal harm would be quite difficult to accept. However, Justine’s reference to close friends who had willingly given birth after acts of rape — and to the life-threatening complications that occurred during the birth of her own child – surprised the interviewer. The interviewer was not prepared for Justine’s commitment to her anti-abortion stance even in the face of personal risk.
As a pro-choice advocate, the ability of the interviewer to imagine being committed to childbirth even under circumstances of rape and threat to one’s life was jolting. He had to admit that there was something genuine about her experience that he was not able to appreciate prior to hearing her story.
The capacity for stories to stimulate sympathetic understanding of the other help set up conditions for effective political problem-solving. When we are able to see ourselves in the other – or the other in ourselves – we connect to the other’s humanity. We are then more able to treat our “opponent” as a human being – a fellow person with feelings, beliefs, grievances, pleas and pains. The more we are able to do this, the more we ready ourselves for to engage our political opponents in constructive dialogue. To find out how, read How to Have a Political Conversation About Abortion II: Shared Problem Solving.
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