Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Rhetorical Question

As I suggested in an earlier post, and have been saying regularly for a while now, I think the most frustrating aspect of any of the political issues I'm reading about has to be the rhetoric. Every single "discussion" is being framed in overly simplistic terms or entirely inflammatory ones, and as soon as certain buzz words are used in one context, it defines who is allowed to comment in that space and who is not.

An article on "The Thinkery" deals with frustration from liberal Christians with fundamentalism from both the atheist and Christian side. One side says we can't be "true believers" because we don't meet [x] requirement, while the other says we are irrational for believing in God in the first place, thereby immediately dismissing our ability to present a rational and cogent position. I have some great conversations with atheists and spiritual believers alike who are listening, but the alternative happens often enough that my frustration is there.

But online discussions of US Supreme Court decision on partial-birth abortion and a few other issues have been characterized by one phrase: "It's that simple". That phrase says one thing, regardless of what comes before it--"Stop talking. I'm not changing my mind, there is no chance I can increase my understanding here, and anybody who thinks there's more to understand is just delusional. Stop. Talking." In the case of the abortion ban, I've seen it used to flat-out dismiss and dehumanize sexually active women: "Don't have sex and you won't have any babies to kill. It's that simple" and I've seen it used in cases where it's completely factually incorrect: "This law prevents all second trimester abortions. It prevents women from deciding when they're 5 months pregnant that they just don't want to be pregnant anymore. It's that simple".

For the most part, those who have agitated against the ban or spoken out since have been much less inclined to oversimplify, probably because they're the ones with their backs against the wall being caricatured to death, and they know their strongest argument against that image is to show the many, many complicated situations in which a woman may choose or require an intact D&E. Many of them continue hoping against hope that the people who misunderstand the law in the way of the latter commenter can hear them when they back up their statements with links to what the law really says. But I've seen some bloggers who have gotten to the point of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" frustration with respect to rhetoric, using terms like "the forced childbirth movement". I'm right, you're wrong, it's that simple, stop talking, I'm not listening anyway, your perspective doesn't count here.

Dancing the dance of being heard in both feminist and Christian circles means I choose my words very carefully (that I'm long-winded is unquestionable, but that's my personal battle against "it's that simple"). Oversimplifications like "pro-life" vs "pro-choice" make me uncomfortable. I don't know how to refuse to let someone define me as "anti-life", and I certainly have no intention of dismissing the nuances of the positions of others with terms like "forced childbirth". My best friend and I have had some heated debates over the issue of abortion over the years, and she doesn't much like being portrayed as "anti-choice" either, though she acknowledges that "anti-life" and even "pro-death" sounds a hell of a lot worse. The competing echo chamber aspect of contemporary politics is pretty well-understood, and yet all we're saying is "it's that simple". Go away--if you're Christian, you can't be rational, if you're atheist, you hate Jesus and those who stand for Him.

The linguist in me understands that not only is it politically vital to get control of the terms of the debate, it's also cognitively natural to label. I need simple basics if I'm going to describe someone to someone else, and one-word titles will do that. I need to know whether certain topics are going to be controversial and where we might have common ground when I meet someone. And dichotomous options are the easiest. But it's never that simple. Smart people, even most people, know this, but they still choose their short-phrase summaries of people and positions: Fundies. Anti-choice. Islamofascists. Tree hugging dirt munching hippies. Maybe they'll acknowledge that people can fit into multiple boxes--though in my experience, feminist Christian is a tough combination for many to reconcile--and maybe they'll understand that the boxes are bigger than they might think, but they still need boxes.

Kristofferson got that: He's a poet. He's a picker. He's a prophet. He's a pusher. He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned. He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.

It's never that simple. It's that simple.

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