Are you a student leader who wants your club to have better attendance at outreach events? As a former leader of a pro-life organization at my university, I faced a similar predicament until I learned to add a critical step to my club’s outreaches: create a space where students can debrief and process after the event. Investing time for this discussion can change the way your club thinks about abortion conversations.
Josh and Timothy Brahm debriefing with the Students for Life staff after an outreach with them in 2014.
Consider whether the following sounds like one of your typical outreach events:
You reserve a table spot on campus. Then you tell your club about the upcoming event, but you end up getting a low response from members. You become frustrated by this, wishing your club was larger and that the current club members would step up and be more committed. You and the other club leaders must stay at the table for much longer than you’d like to because you don’t have enough volunteers to cover the table. This adds stress and takes away from your study time. Each time you want to have a tabling event, you feel even less enthusiastic and more desperate for help than before!
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. I’ve heard stories like this all too often from students I mentor, and it was my story as well until I learned about the power of debriefing after an outreach. Once I gave my fellow club members the opportunity to discuss and process their conversations after tabling events, their feelings about outreach changed. And when their feelings changed, their behavior changed, too. My club members began requesting more outreach events, and they even moved their schedules around so that we could fill all of the time slots. Outreach became a priority because we had a purpose at the table and we came to understand the benefits of the experience for ourselves and our campus.
American abortion laws are among the most radical in the world. Unfortunately, though almost everyone knows that Roe v. Wade made abortion legal at the federal level, few people understand exactly how the case changed the country’s abortion laws. This gives me the opportunity to educate people when dialoguing about abortion at Arizona State University, and I’ve found that many pro-choice people change their attitude about Roe when they understand it better.
Picture Credit: Duncan Lock, Dflock – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
One Way to Dialogue about Roe
Many people label themselves as “pro-choice,” but this label doesn’t tell us much. People’s views on abortion restrictions can vary greatly, from wanting no restrictions whatsoever, to only having legal abortion available in the first trimester in the case of rape. However, the majority of people I’ve spoken to on college campuses will vaguely agree that they don’t support late-term abortion. After providing them with a few simple facts about late-term abortion, almost everyone will agree such procedures should be illegal. The example dialogue below illustrates how a pro-life advocate can help a pro-choice person realize that they disagree with the extremism of Roe because of their existing beliefs about late-term abortion:
Most pro-life people have at least one major goal in common: we want to see abortion become illegal. So why do we disagree so much about how we should get there? Primarily, it’s that we have different beliefs about what is effective. If we all agreed that a given strategy had the highest probability of succeeding in the shortest amount of time, then we could probably all get on board with that strategy.
There are many reasons why we disagree so much about what is likely to work. People have different experiences, different personalities, different strengths, different mentors, confirmation bias, misunderstandings, sin, and good old-fashioned stubbornness. It’s pretty difficult to do much about these things. But there’s another factor that contributes to our disagreements that we can actually do something about, because it is a very correctable error in reasoning: We have an ingrained impulse to be results-oriented. If we all learned to recognize that impulse, we would actually have fewer disagreements.
Being results-oriented means believing explicitly or implicitly that a given action is praiseworthy or blameworthy on the basis of the results of the action.[Tweet that] In other words, when someone is trying to evaluate the effectiveness of an action, an argument, a method, or anything else, they look at the results. If it had a positive result, they declare the action/argument/method to be effective. If it didn’t have a positive result, they declare it to be ineffective.
Imagine there is an eager pro-life high school student named Jared. He has spent hours talking with his pro-choice friends on Facebook, but their conversations never seem to go anywhere. Although he sometimes thinks that his friends make good points, he doesn’t always know how to respond to them. In order to be the best pro-life advocate possible, Jared decides that he needs to gain a better understanding of people who disagree with him and learn how to defend his own beliefs more persuasively. He reads abortion philosophy books, attends pro-life conferences, and listens to podcasts. After all this studying, he feels eager to discuss abortion with his friends—except this time he decides to talk with them in person during lunch instead of online. Afraid of forgetting any of the important arguments he has learned, he decides to bring a notebook outlining his talking points. Although his intentions are well-meaning, his delivery is noticeably awkward. Every time his pro-choice friends ask a question or make a comment, he refers to his notes before responding. Not only do his friends feel a little uncomfortable, but they also begin to think that the conversation isn’t genuine.
When you talk with pro-choice people, you probably don’t commit faux pas as flagrant as Jared’s notebook, but you may be making similar mistakes. If we come across in conversations as though we have spent time studying how to persuade people, they may feel uncomfortable and misinterpret our intentions. We don’t want people to think that we are reading from a script or that we have been coached on what to say. If we are making people feel this way, then our preparation is working against us instead of improving our advocacy. We don’t want to be deceptive; if someone asked me if I’ve spent time preparing for abortion conversations, I’d say yes. But I’m trying to not make that fact obvious because, when it’s obvious, it’s usually off-putting. Here are some easily overlooked mistakes that could prevent your dialogues from feeling relaxed and natural:
John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium.
Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.
Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.
Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.
Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.