Let’s Talk About Disagreeing With Each Other

Let’s talk about having disagreements for a second. Disagreements about topics that make you so angry you feel like your passion could start a fire, or give you a heart attack. The ones that break your heart, that keep you up at night. Issues that have personally touched people you know, maybe the ones closest to you. The ones you lose friendships over, have broken ties, and burned bridges over.

Estimated reading time: 5.5 minutes.

Nicole Hocott at the March for Life in the nation’s capital.

Everything I say in this blog post is going to be based on this assumption: If you’re reading this, then you truly care about these issues and want other people to care as well. You want the best for those you disagree with in the following way: You want them to see your side because you believe it’s the truth. If you don’t care about convincing others of the truth, well, you should. But I won’t touch on that right now.

We all have certain topics that make our blood boil. In this post, I want to consider what our response should be to these. Let’s take a minute and step outside of any specific disagreement to look at disagreements in general. Let’s look at a few different options.

Don’t Blindly Use Statistics in Dialogue

A few years ago, I used to enjoy watching popular political commentators debating or responding to questions from college students after speeches. I gained a lot from the videos because they provided me with new ways to think about complicated political issues. The arguments and responses I watched tended to include a barrage of facts and statistics.

That is all perfectly appropriate for debates, where your goal is to beat your opponent and move the audience. But when I tried to replicate that approach in my dialogues, it didn’t go as well as I had hoped.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Responding to the Question of Rape

One day at work, I struck up a conversation with Jeff*, a coworker. It eventually turned to politics. He began by saying, “In some issues, I don’t care what people do, like in abortion.” I responded with, “Well, it’s not a casual thing, like an appendectomy; it’s the killing of a child.” To this, Jeff grinned widely and snarkily shot back, “Oh yeah? What about rape?” I immediately fired back, “That only has to do with less than one percent of abortions. What about the other 99 percent? Are you fine with those?” Jeff admitted that he was fine with them so I suggested we discuss those first.

Point for me, right? Not really. As great as it felt to turn this common and rhetorically charged objection on its head, I don’t see how it helped Jeff. I’m not sure he’d ever heard a good response to that objection, and I had just perpetuated that streak. Sometimes people bring up marginal cases because they think it will be a winning argument; they want to throw something difficult in your face so they don’t need to defend their own position. But that isn’t the only reason that pro-choice people ask about the question of rape. In fact, most of the time they ask this because they want to know if the pro-life person cares about people or understands the consequences of restricting abortion access for women. To them, as to us, abortion is a human rights issue, and you can’t get around questions involving human rights by responding that such-and-such issue only concerns a small minority of humans.

My First Pro-life Display Was a Flop

My first pro-life display wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was pretty close. My goal was to get the ball rolling and build up some campus presence. It bugged me that no one seemed to know my pro-life club existed, and I wanted to change that. One way to do so was outreach. The goal of outreach is to raise awareness and educate students on the issue of abortion. It also gives you a chance to recruit new club members.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.

Image of college campus.

Our group decided to use a display board that showed how many abortions happened in just the past hour, while students were in class. The board had painted baby feet, one for each child killed by abortion. Creating the display was a fantastic bonding opportunity for our group.

I was advised by one of our coordinators not to have too much on the table to avoid it looking cluttered. So I only picked out handfuls of our club info flyer, pregnancy resource cards, and pro-life merchandise. There was also a short stack of papers with what I took to be general pro-life material, based on a quick skim before the tabling. So we had our display as our attention-getter, and then the materials neatly laid out next to it.

At the outreach, we each grabbed a chair and sat behind the table, eagerly waiting for student interaction. Unfortunately, that wait lasted the majority of the day. Most people ignored the display, which was disappointing because I thought it would help stir engagement.

Then, one of our members, Mike, spotted his friend walking near us. Let’s call her Julie. They casually talked for a short bit, and then he asked her what she thought about abortion.

Julie: “It’s my body” (gesturing to her stomach).

Mike: “It’s not your body.”

Julie: “But it’s in my body.”

Mike: “But it’s someone else’s body.”

She seemed a bit frustrated towards the end (reasonably so, as he was misunderstanding her position), and then she turned away from him and towards me.

How College Students Responded to Questions About 3rd-Trimester Abortions

When I talk with people about abortion it is usually on a college campus at a free speech table that asks the broad question “Should abortion remain legal?” At my most recent visit to campus, I wanted to try something new. I asked people their thoughts specifically about the availability of third-trimester abortion.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

I asked this question for two reasons. First, abortion-choice political candidates have completely abandoned the “mushy middle” pro-choice view to become abortion extremists. They want states to pass laws as New York did in 2019 to legalize abortion throughout all pregnancy until birth, for any reason. For the majority of Americans, this means that they don’t have representatives running for office that share their views on abortion. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 53% of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances.” I wanted to ask people who are in the middle on this issue how they felt about the direction politicians are taking things and if that affected the way they voted. After all, that same Gallup poll showed a record high of 29% of Americans will only consider like-minded candidates on abortion.

Second, I wanted to engage with students about a significant incongruence our team has witnessed in thousands of past conversations. One of the most common pro-choice arguments is that abortion should be the woman’s legal choice because she is the only one who should have a say over what happens to her body. At the same time, most of the people we talk with who bring up this line of thinking also tell us that they think there should be restrictions put on abortion like gestational limits or circumstances like rape or if the mother’s life or health is at risk. Here is the problem: if it is true that abortion is justified because of a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy then that must be true throughout all of the pregnancy regardless of her reasons for exercising that bodily autonomy.

You cannot make that argument for abortion during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, but not at 24 weeks of pregnancy because later abortions give you ethical qualms. Either you must consistently apply that thinking to all of pregnancy, or use a different argument altogether to justify early abortion. You can read our full article, Bodily Rights Arguments Necessitate Extremism, for more on this point.

Four Lessons From My First Conversation About Abortion

One windy Saturday morning, I was downtown doing a Students for Life display with a few other college students. My dialogue training at that point was minimal, so I wasn’t very hopeful about my ability to help people change their minds. Sure, I knew some general apologetics and how to “Trot Out A Toddler,” and our Students for Life Coordinator had introduced me to the Equal Rights Argument that morning. I wasn’t filled with confidence but I was open to talking with anyone walking by regardless.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.

My First Dialogue with a Pro-Choice Person

A lady was walking by our display, holding a camera. Let’s call her Maria. I asked if she wanted to see our display. She agreed and glanced at it for a bit. I then asked what she thought about it, and about abortion in general.

Maria’s response was that women go through difficult circumstances, which makes it tough for her to be against abortion. She pointed out that it was tough for me to get it because I’m a guy. I nodded and let her continue. She added, “Even I don’t know what some women go through.” I was surprised at her sincerity. Admitting you don’t know something to someone you just met who probably disagrees with you about a serious subject is a sign of intellectual virtue.

Due to the wind, I had to stand behind some of the display stands and hold them in place so they would not fall over. This made it awkward because she wasn’t that close, and I couldn’t get closer. I couldn’t maintain good body language or eye contact. This all made it tough to listen well and also speak at a low volume.

Maria went on to list examples of women in dire situations: women who feel so poor, alone, and powerless, that they leave their born children out in a dumpster. I told her I had heard of cases like these as well and that I agreed they were awful stories. Then I asked if she thought doing that should be legal, and she said no. The rest is as follows:

Me: So the born child should be legally protected, even if the woman is going through those difficult things?

Maria Yes.

Me: Hmm… Let me ask you this: do you think you and I are equal?

Maria: Yeah.

Me: Do you think everyone around us is equal to us?

Maria: Yeah.

Me: We have so many differences, though. What do you think makes us equal?

Maria: Well, we’re human.

Me: (Nodding) Aren’t the unborn human, too?

Maria: Yeah… That makes sense… It’s just tough.

At that point, I nodded, and she thanked me for the conversation. She also asked if she could take a photo of us for her photography class, and we gladly agreed.

I felt great, and not just because she might have changed her mind, but because this was my first substantial conversation about abortion. I had made the effort to get out of my comfort zone, and this was the fruit of my labor: talking to a sincere person who seemed to really care about people.

It’s true this dialogue was short and that her final position was unclear, but it still provided a good opportunity for me to practice dialogue skills and learn how to better talk with pro-choice people. I’m going to share four lessons I’ve learned since then that have made me a better pro-life advocate. Had I known of these that day, I would have been much more intentional about getting to know her position and figuring out any other obstacles to her firmly becoming pro-life.

Lesson 1: Ask More Clarification Questions

Now that I’ve had more dialogue training and experience, I wish I could go back and ask Maria more about why she thought differently about moral decisions in difficult circumstances for born children and unborn children. I would ask a clarification question like, “Can you explain what you mean by it being tough? Do you mean pregnancy situations are so tough that you think they justify abortion? Or do you agree abortion should be illegal, but you’re struggling with how women can overcome those tough situations?

Or perhaps I would have talked through how I think about it and share my view in clear detail: “Of course, women, even those with born children, go through difficult circumstances. I think we can have sympathy for these mothers while also saying that toddlers should not be harmed for those reasons. Instead, we should help the mother so she can overcome her situation. And because I believe that unborn children are valuable like toddlers or you and I, that same logic applies to pregnant women in difficult circumstances.”

One of the best parts of this conversation was that Maria was so open and the interaction was civil. Of course, civility is not the finish line in dialogues—it is only the beginning. I’m personally striving to love the other person, which goes far beyond civility. I think I could have helped the person in front of me more if I would have pushed her to think a little deeper.

Lesson 2: Changing My Body Language

In the Equipped for Life Course, there is a lesson about body language during dialogues which helps pro-life advocates think through how to best stand or sit to help our interactions not feel so stiff or awkward. If I could go back to that day with what I know now from the course, I would have definitely prioritized standing closer without an object in the way. That was more important than making sure our displays wouldn’t fall over. After all, the purpose of the display was to start conversations and once I was speaking with Maria, it had served its purpose.

Lesson 3: Letting Go of Arguments with Question Marks

The version of the Equal Rights Argument I presented to Maria involved several broken-up questions that led her to a conclusion. This formulation indeed helped me, as a beginner, deliver the argument. Also, Maria was an especially easy person to talk to, so it wasn’t a problem for this dialogue. However, making arguments this way can negatively influence the atmosphere of the conversation. It can easily make others feel defensive in that you’re hiding something and just trying to trap them. Now they might be more worried about saving face than about taking your view seriously. I don’t want people to feel that way. I want to make a strong argument that is convincing and easy to understand, and I want to give people the space and time to think through it.

I found ERI’s lesson above on not making arguments with question marks helpful. I should instead be ending my arguments as a statement. So, in this case, I now would lay out the argument in its entirety, and then ask for the person’s thoughts.

Questions are really important in the conversation, but ERI’s style is to ask clarification questions over leading questions and to make arguments in the form of a statement rather than a question. I have come to appreciate that approach. When I make the Equal Rights Argument, I begin by asking the person to imagine themselves as the ruler of the universe, who has the authority to decide what is in the “equal right to life circle” and what is not. I’d then go through a handful of examples, such as people who aren’t great at math, tall people, not-so-great-looking people, and ask about animals too, like squirrels. After we’ve sorted through what belongs inside and outside the circle, I could ask, “what do all of these (things you put in the circle) have in common?”

Sometimes they give different answers like sentience, self-awareness, and the like. And the Equipped for Life Course talks through how to respond to these ideas and how to make the argument in much more detail than I am giving here. Sometimes the person will reply, “Well, they’re human,” because they have sorted all sorts of human beings into the circle but excluded animals like squirrels or dogs. I could then make an argument for the case of the unborn in one of two ways:

Argument made with a question: “Well, we know that the unborn are human too so don’t you think they should be included in the Equal Right to Life Circle?”

Argument made with a statement: “I think you’re right. I think that there is something about our shared humanity that gives us this right to life and everyone that is human should be protected from violence. That’s why I’m pro-life. I think our humanity is the reason we deserve an equal right to life, and I apply that same thinking to the issue of abortion. The human embryo also shares that same valuable thing that everyone in the circle has, so I believe that they should be included as well. What do you think?”

Making the argument with a statement and then asking for their thoughts gives the other person the opportunity to think through my position for themselves and voice objections without feeling like I put words in their mouth or backed them into a corner with a fast “gotcha” maneuver. And while a leading, confrontational approach is valuable in some debate circles, it is much less convincing to everyday people who are open to thinking through their own views and hearing mine.

Lesson 4: Conversations are Worth the Risk

My biggest takeaway relates to Voltaire’s quote:

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

I’ve realized that sometimes I can still do good with just a bit of training. And, if I have basic civility, this becomes a low-risk, high-reward scenario. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Training-wise, If I get asked a question I can’t answer, I can just be honest and admit I don’t know. And civility-wise, if I get an aggressive person, I at least won’t be yelling or insulting back.

What will I gain? Almost always, real-life experience with someone who disagrees with me, which leads to greater understanding. Starting is one of the most challenging steps, but I had to start somewhere, and I’m glad I did. And for future conversations, I will not only learn lessons that I can later reflect on, but I’ll be able to better cement the relational aspect of relational apologetics. I have friends who find it so easy to call the pro-choice side idiots and extremists, but that’s partially because they only see the pro-choice view portrayed through random people on Facebook or politicians. This all changes when you’re talking to a real person who sincerely cares about others.

And in some of my potential conversations, I might be able to make an impact on the other person. Maybe I won’t always change their mind, but I may at least give them a better impression of the pro-life side. I try to remember what the staff at ERI often say: I might be the first reasonable, charitable pro-life person they’ve ever met.

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The post Four Lessons From My First Conversation About Abortion originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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