Back in 2012, during the debate over the proposed marriage amendment in Minnesota, I noticed something I just can’t unsee about the way that debate was carried out, the way those debates are still playing out.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
It came into focus for me after I attended and reported on one of the events the church sponsored. There were expert speakers making arguments for the amendment — compelling ones, in my opinion. They drew from a range of disciplines: not only theology and Catholic teaching but philosophy and state law, with a depth that surprised even me, someone pretty well versed in the arguments. There was also an opportunity for people to ask questions, including people who disagreed with the church’s stance. There was an exchange of ideas.
The objective was clear: to persuade and convince people who weren’t already convinced, through dialogue in pursuit of the truth with mutual respect.
I think I was the only journalist there.
I didn’t attend any of the events held by the other side, but I carefully followed the news coverage of them, which was extensive and wholly favorable. I read countless op-eds and letters to the editor from opponents of the amendment.
The approach of that side of the debate could not have been more different from ours. There were endlessly repeated bumper sticker slogans and talking points, like “love wins.” Carefully curated personal stories manipulatively aroused a very one-sided sympathy. When it came to those who supported the amendment, we were spoken of always with contempt, accompanied by false accusations of hatred and bigotry.
When they bothered to make arguments, they were superficial arguments proponents of the amendment had answers for. Those answers were not even acknowledged, much less engaged. The secular media was not so much reporting as “manufacturing consent,” echoing the language and talking points of only one side. Small wonder most people never even heard the other.
The objective was obvious: to circumvent public debate entirely, to give the impression there was only one legitimate side, opposed only by ignorant, hateful bigots.
This, I have come to see, is the blueprint for how so many of these cultural debates, most recently the PRO Act, the extreme abortion law rammed through the Minnesota Legislature last month, get carried out.
The bishops of Minnesota sent a profound, wise, compelling letter to all the state legislators. They explained the flaws in the law, explained the critical moral principles at stake, highlighted the need to pursue common ground, and testified beautifully to the need for Minnesota to care for women in need and find common ground in pursuing the common good.
Legal experts testified before the legislature giving compelling arguments. Countless people of good will contacted their legislators begging and pleading with them to stop the bill or at least to moderate its extremes.
The approach of the other side was, again, quite different. There were the slogans we’ve heard (and refuted) for 50 years. There were the carefully curated personal stories designed to manipulate emotions. There was the media manufacturing consent. There was the contempt for and demonization of the pro-life community, the horrible false accusations.
And most strikingly there was the total lack of engagement of any of the pro-life arguments, those irrefutable arguments rooted in science and natural law and the dignity of the human person that we have been making for so many years.
The outcome itself, of course, is the most terrible part of it: the death and the suffering and the unspeakable violation of human rights that will result from it. Minnesota is undoubtedly a much worse place for it.
But I also found myself so sad and discouraged by the injustice of how these debates play out. Consequential issues should be debated seriously and openly and substantively, and truth should matter. We should try to persuade, not demonize, those we disagree with. This is how a good society would conduct itself.
Despite the sadness of it, though, I found myself being proud to be associated with the people who made our case so well, who carried themselves with intelligence and decency, who treated the people who disagree with us with respect and appealed to their consciences, attempting to convince them, even if in the end they didn’t listen.
I know there are many people who take the opposite lesson. There are those who think that winning is all that matters, and if that means adopting the rhetorical tactics of those who oppose us, that’s what we should do. We should stop trying to persuade, stop focusing on rational argument, and instead focus on slogans and manipulative sentimentality, the argument goes. As for those who disagree with us, there are those who feel we’d be better off doing to them what they do to us, demonizing them and treating them as unworthy of engaging with civility and respect.
I think those are not just the wrong lessons but approaches that damage our pro-life witness. How could we defend human dignity by denying it in our opponents? How could we uphold truth by turning away from reason? How could we uphold the moral law by being shallow and manipulative?
Given the public perception of the Catholic Church, it’s a delicious irony that often, on these major issues, the church is the most consistent defender left in the public square of reason, of science, of genuine human freedom and liberty, of respectful dialogue.
Now, if only there were more people receptive to those valuable things.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]