You said you’d stand for every known abuse… Pro-lifers? In my feminism? It’s more likely than you think #MTRsues

The Melinda Tankard Reist v Jennifer Wilson debate is reaching its inevitable telos: vitriol.

The latest manifestation is a series of Tweets informing readers that the ‘debate’ isn’t between pro-lifers and pro-choicers: it’s between pro-choicers and anti-choicers.

Meanwhile, the attacks on Melinda Tankard Reist are getting more personal: if she’s anti-abortion, can she really be a feminist?  Really, really?  Has anybody seen her feminist barcode tattooed to her neck?

The first issue sheds some light on the latter, so let’s start there.  By way of disclosure, I’m a white conservative male who doesn’t identify as feminist and who is pro-death.  I don’t have a horse in this race.  I disagree with MTR’s pro-life stance and I also disagree with the increasingly vitriolic, personal attacks against her (particularly the: ‘Ignore her arguments; remember she’s a Christian!’ rhetoric).

The way we talk about issues shapes the way we think about them.  It is notable that both sides of the ‘debate’ refer to themselves as ‘pro-something’.  More than that, they both refer to themselves as ‘pro-something-everybody-should-be-pro’.  The language is to reassure the advocate: they are on the side of angels, defending things which are worth defending, be it choice or life.

But the language we use is also a way of posing their side of the debate as default rational.  Of course you should be pro-life; are you anti-life?  Of course you should be pro-choice; are you anti-choice?

As such, the labels we use are shorthand for thinking.  Condensing a complicated argument down into 140 characters means resorting to snappy, emotive caricatures of our opponents.  With issues as deeply personal as abortion, it seems almost inevitable that we’re going to demonise our opponents.

As said earlier, I’m pro-death.  I’m fine for a woman to terminate her baby right up to labour, and for parents to issue doctors with Do Not Resuscitate instructions for their newborns.  I can understand why people wouldn’t agree with my position.  In today’s intellectual climate, it seems rather extreme but it’s founded in the idea that not every life is worth saving, that medicine is about quality of life, and that parents should be able to decide whether they want to undertake the burden of raising a child with severe health issues.

It also sits comfortably with my conservative views: some life isn’t worth saving.  Quality life is worth preserving.  Who decides the threshold for quality?  The people who are living it.

I understand the argument against my position.  I have a lot of sympathy for it but I’m not convinced by it.  I understand that there are some moderate pro-choicers who are uncomfortable with the idea of post-natal abortion.  Being honest, I suspect that they’re in the clear majority.

It would be absurd for me to declare them ‘anti-choice’ just because they disagree that post-natal abortion is a morally acceptable choice.  It would be absurd for me to demonise them.

And yet that’s what the main players in the debate do to each other on a daily basis.

It is not difficult to understand why a pro-lifer sees a similarity between abortion and murder.  It’s the deliberate ending of a life.  It’s the deliberate ending of a human life.  Many vegetarians and animal rights activists argue that we should extend the right to life as broadly as we possibly can.  Logical conclusion: unborn human life should be protected.  We might disagree with the idea, but it’s not pants-on-head stupid.

Characterising people who disagree with us as ‘anti-choice’ trivialises their position.  Weirdly, people on the pro-choice side of the ledger tend to have the most ridiculous assertions.  Consider the ‘If you ban abortion, women will have backyard abortions’ argument.  It’s clearly absurd.  The anti-abortion advocate is obviously against backyard abortions as well.  It’s not inconsistent for the anti-abortion advocate to champion better services for women to reduce the need for backyard abortions: better family planning, easier access to contraceptives, campaigns to reduce shaming of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, free education for women, &c., &c.

And it’s here that we crash into the ‘Is Melinda Tankard Reist a feminist?’ question.

If you believe that prohibiting abortion is a means by which males control female bodies, then feminists cannot be pro-life.  But this isn’t the only valid concept of anti-abortion.  If you believe that a feminist is a person who champions the endowment of women with the maximum scope of rights, but do not consider access to abortion to be a legitimate right as it infringes on the rights of the unborn baby, then it is not inconsistent for a anti-abortion champion to also be a feminist.  Similarly, I don’t think it’s the case that you have to champion my pro-death, maxi-choice position in order to be a feminist, even though my position extends more rights to women than most pro-choicers.

So if I’m not pro-life or feminist, why throw my hat into the ring?  Because I think it’s illustrative of a problem which does affect me: a problem I call ‘Positionism’.

Positionism is when a person tries to determine which political label applies to a person based on the positions held by the person and not the reasoning behind the position.  To the positionist, a person is left wing if they affirm a series of sentences.  You care about the environment, homosexuals, asylum seekers, women, and poor people?  You’re left wing.  You care about the privileged, corporations, and stomping on kittens?  You’re right wing.  You care about equality of women?  You’re feminist.  You don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions?  You can’t be a feminist.

It puzzles people that I, a conservative, can agree with left wingers on a variety of topics.  When I go through the various positions and show that they can be reached by two, diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, they seem shocked.  (I always take advantage of their shocked state to induce post-hypnotic aversions to supporting the Greens)

We need to get away from this kind of tribal political discourse.  Not only is it stupid, it’s damaging.  It encourages group think (which has almost completely destroyed the atheist community) because to maintain the self-identification with a label, one feels the need to advocate a particular set of beliefs rather than employ a particular set of reasons.  Stating that MTR can’t be feminist because she’s pro-life is to completely ignore the reasons why she advocates her pro-life views and to privilege dogmatically a particular conception of abortion.

More than that: perhaps it’s just time to stop treating everybody who disagrees with us as being too stupid to operate their brain properly.  How I long for that day.

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4 thoughts on “You said you’d stand for every known abuse… Pro-lifers? In my feminism? It’s more likely than you think #MTRsues

  1. Positionism strikes me as the natural (if unholy) union of mindlessly eclectic cafeteria-counter politics with some kind of instinctive tribalism. “Oh, I’ll have a little of this, a little of that, a little of that … oh, look, your selections are very much like mine, we must be of the same tribe! Let’s put on armbands and fling poo at everyone else.”

    Tho’ I do think opposing systematic philosophies can have points of principled agreement, too, or at least I don’t think the overlap of conservative and radical critiques of the contemporary status quo is entirely arbitrary or coincidental. The two may be in substantive agreement on what constitutes political virtue and agree that contemporary society is failing at it. The divergence is over how and why that came about — on a conservative analysis it’s a deviation from an otherwise sustainable norm, on a radical analysis it’s an internal development, and a sign that the earlier norm was desirable but not really sustainable. Important differences in prescriptions for what ought to happen in the present will mostly follow from that.

  2. “Characterising people who disagree with us as ‘anti-choice’ trivialises their position.  Weirdly, people on the pro-choice side of the ledger tend to have the most ridiculous assertions.  Consider the ‘If you ban abortion, women will have backyard abortions’ argument.  It’s clearly absurd.  The anti-abortion advocate is obviously against backyard abortions as well.  It’s not inconsistent for the anti-abortion advocate to champion better services for women to reduce the need for backyard abortions: better family planning, easier access to contraceptives, campaigns to reduce shaming of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, free education for women, &c., &c.”

    There’s a serious problem with your response here, which is that the pro-choice advocate is responding to the actual case, which is that pro-lifers tend to oppose family planning options, access to contraception and so on. They’re also typically involved in promoting abstinence-only education, which we know is harmful and directly contributes to shaming women who have out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Certainly it’s not incoherent for the anti-abortion advocate to support various improvements, but as it turns out, most don’t. The ‘backyard abortions’ argument isn’t absurd when taken in the context of the larger debate, especially since what we’re talking about is actually policy choices. The policies supported by pro-life advocates have at least some of the sorts of outcomes pro-choice advocates are concerned by.

    If the claims were made a delimited conversation about direct entailments of individual positions, that would be one thing, but they exist as part of a broader dialogue that includes several groups arguing against abortion, contraception, education, government support and so on. Even if they weren’t arguing against the other components, and were merely neutral to them, the current status quo means that, in practice, we would have more unsafe abortions.

    “If you believe that prohibiting abortion is a means by which males control female bodies, then feminists cannot be pro-life.  But this isn’t the only valid concept of anti-abortion.  If you believe that a feminist is a person who champions the endowment of women with the maximum scope of rights, but do not consider access to abortion to be a legitimate right as it infringes on the rights of the unborn baby, then it is not inconsistent for a anti-abortion champion to also be a feminist.  Similarly, I don’t think it’s the case that you have to champion my pro-death, maxi-choice position in order to be a feminist, even though my position extends more rights to women than most pro-choicers.”

    I don’t think one can support the maximum scope of rights for women whilst denying them the right to bodily autonomy. No-one seriously suggests compulsory blood donation, or even compulsory post-mortem organ donation, even though neither of those involve the same risks, time or cost as pregnancy, or the same amount of coercion as compelling an unwilling pregnant person to bring their pregnancy to term. Why? Because it’s considered an unacceptable exercise of State power.

    “Positionism is when a person tries to determine which political label applies to a person based on the positions held by the person and not the reasoning behind the position.  To the positionist, a person is left wing if they affirm a series of sentences.  You care about the environment, homosexuals, asylum seekers, women, and poor people?  You’re left wing.  You care about the privileged, corporations, and stomping on kittens?  You’re right wing.  You care about equality of women?  You’re feminist.  You don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions?  You can’t be a feminist.”

    I broadly agree with your interpretation here – the idea that these kind of simplistic labels can be applied on fairly flimsy grounds is silly (and that has been recognised for a long time). But that’s not the same thing as looking at, say MTR’s argument that she’s a feminist, because she supports women and women’s rights, and pointing out that such a claim is incompatible with coercing women into remaining pregnant. Thus, her pro-life stance is incompatible with being a feminist.

    “It puzzles people that I, a conservative, can agree with left wingers on a variety of topics.  When I go through the various positions and show that they can be reached by two, diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, they seem shocked.  (I always take advantage of their shocked state to induce post-hypnotic aversions to supporting the Greens)

    We need to get away from this kind of tribal political discourse.  Not only is it stupid, it’s damaging.  It encourages group think (which has almost completely destroyed the atheist community) because to maintain the self-identification with a label, one feels the need to advocate a particular set of beliefs rather than employ a particular set of reasons.  Stating that MTR can’t be feminist because she’s pro-life is to completely ignore the reasons why she advocates her pro-life views and to privilege dogmatically a particular conception of abortion.

    More than that: perhaps it’s just time to stop treating everybody who disagrees with us as being too stupid to operate their brain properly.  How I long for that day.”

    I really think that there’s a difference here between the two things we’re talking about (and not just in terms of me agreeing that less people should vote Green). MTR’s position is that women can be forced to have their bodies occupied and literally used as mere means to the ends of others. That is directly counter to the egalitarian goals of feminism. The only way to make feminism compatible with MTR’s position is to re-define it into oblivion.

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