Imagine you’re out hiking with a friend in the beautiful (and fictional) country of Florin, as depicted in The Princess Bride. You’re both clueless tourists but you’ve casually looked at some maps and you think you can handle yourselves. As you’re walking by a ravine, your friend points to a group of trees and says, “Hey, I think if we wander down the ravine and into those trees, we’ll save some time!” You agree, but start to get worried as you notice that what started out as a beautiful forest has turned into a terrifying swamp. Ten minutes later, you are both killed by Rodents of Unusual Size.
Now imagine an alternative scenario. Unlike your tourist friend, you’re a native to Florin, so you know about the parts of the country to avoid, such as the Fire Swamp. When your clueless friend suggests wandering into a dangerous area, you casually redirect him, and you both survive.
A conversation about abortion is surprisingly similar. There are plenty of useful topics to discuss, and plenty of tangents that, while they won’t cause you to get eaten, are really not a good use of time.
Some unhelpful tangents come up regularly because they’re fairly natural responses to some of the arguments I regularly use, and I have learned from experience that some of them should just always be avoided. This post is about a simple but effective way to avoid one in particular.
I am very fond of thought-experiments. I find so much success with them that most of my arguments wind up being backed up by some thought-experiment or another. For instance, if I’m arguing for the personhood of the unborn, I regularly offer the Zoo Shooting:
The character of Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical stands in stark contrast to the title character. Alexander Hamilton is brash, aggressive, tactless, and always reaches for what he wants, while Aaron Burr is polite, careful, and hesitant. When he initially meets Hamilton, Burr encourages him to:
Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.
Sadly, this line reminds me all too well of some well-meaning pro-life people.
Think of it in terms of a dialogue spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, pro-life people dialogue far too aggressively and tactlessly, and, because of that, they don’t usually persuade pro-choice people. Let’s call this “The Hamilton Approach.”
Many agreeable pro-life people wind up on the other end of the spectrum. They say little of consequence in their conversations, they don’t challenge people, and they just focus on being really friendly. Let’s call this “The Aaron Burr Approach.”
The problem is that the people who take the Aaron Burr Approach don’t accomplish much either. Sure, they’re less irritating than people who take the Hamilton Approach, but they don’t persuade anyone of anything because they’re too meek and cautious.
Employ this dialogue tactic to build rapport with a pro-choice person and increase the likelihood that your conversation about abortion will be successful.
Many conversations about abortion succeed or fail because of your rapport, or lack thereof, with the pro-choice person. Even a perfectly articulated pro-life argument will just glance off of a combative pro-choice mind, so people who are skilled at dialogue use wisdom to build rapport and make the tone of the conversation friendly.
This post is about something that I regularly do to build rapport. It may sound implausible that something so simple works so unbelievably well, but I’ve done this dozens of times, and it usually makes a huge difference in my conversations.
Instead of simply asking, “Do you think this or that should be legal?” I’ll say something like:
Let’s transport ourselves to an alternate dimension. We no longer live in the United States of America, we now live in the Benevolent Dictatorship of Joe [insert their first name here]. Joe makes all the rules. Doesn’t that sound nice?
A pro-choice argument in the form of a series of arrogant tweets recently went viral. You would think that with all that bravado, there would have been something new or interesting, but, no, it was just the same argument that has been around for decades. Disappointing as the argument was, I did find it interesting that, the last time I experienced this argument on a college campus, the person making the argument had a similar aggressive tone.
For some reason, pro-choice people tend to think this argument demolishes the pro-life view, so it’s important to be ready to respond to it efficiently (meaning you need to focus on just a couple of disanalogies, not all of them) and persuasively (meaning you need to convince them that you aren’t just weaseling out of a problem with your view).
Tim talks with Ann (mostly obscured) with two pro-life volunteers watching.
Photo credit: Justice For All. Used with permission.
Here’s what I did at a Justice For All outreach at UCLA in May of 2016. (You can find much of what I did in Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, which I highly recommend. Robert George also wrote this excellent article recently.)
Ann: So if life begins at conception, what would you do if you were in a burning fertility clinic and you had to choose between saving a born baby and ten frozen embryos?
Tim: That’s a great question and I’m happy to answer it, but it’s a good example of the principle that it’s easier to ask a hard question than it is to answer it. Are you willing to give me a few minutes to answer, or are you just trying to trap me?
Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. For instance, when you look at a stick in the water, it looks bent, even though it isn’t. Or, when you’re driving on a hot day, it looks like there is water on the road at the horizon, even though there isn’t. If you want to have true beliefs, it helps to know when your perception is untrustworthy.
In general, people believe things about political issues based on what seems to be true to them. Many different factors influence what seems to be true to us, some of them more than they should. We all have biases, incomplete information, and sometimes faulty arguments that influence what seems to be true to us. But just like it seems to be true that the stick in the water is bent, sometimes what seems to be true politically isn’t actually true.