Abortion: a quick example to show how easy it is to win even emotionally charged conversations

November 27, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Here in Cincinnati we’ve been engaged in a fight to not become the largest metropolitan region (2.1 million people) in the country without an abortion clinic.

When someone posted an update about the fight to one of our local politics forums, it attracted comments like the following painting right-to-lifers as “pro baby”:

With language like this, the issue is politically charged to say the least. Most people are afraid to even respond because they know they’re going to be accused of “baby killing”.

What I want to demonstrate is that it’s not that difficult to win conversations on abortion (and other highly charged conversations) if you understand what the opposition is trying to do and if you’re willing to try a slightly different approach.

Here’s another conservative commenter:

Here, the conservative commenter goes further and names the baby killers as “cultish progressives” in an attempt to provoke. He is both trying to claim the moral high ground and liberal bait.

How to respond?

What they’re trying to do is state a strong moral position: abortion = killing babies.

The best way to respond is with a stronger moral position:

Here, the conservative commenter goes further and names the baby killers as “cultish progressives” in an attempt to provoke. He is both trying to claim the moral high ground and liberal bait.

I made a few mistakes but let me first start with what I think worked.

First, government shouldn’t be taking religious positions. The moral here is freedom. Freedom from religions. Freedom from a religion that wants to mandate its views on Ohio. Because let’s be honest, that’s what this is.

Second, talking about responsibility. This is an area of common ground. We both believe we should teach kids to be responsible so this is a great place to start because here we agree. I’m not your enemy and you’re not mine because we both agree we should teach kids to be responsible. Too often we start with what we want to try to prove without acknowledging that we probably agree 90% of the time. Starting from a point of commonality breaks down divisions like conservative/liberal and places us on the same side.

Third, talking about sex as a natural thing (not some act that needs to be punished … sheesh). Because let’s also be honest, the religious view behind the anti-abortion movement has nothing to do with protecting “life”. If it did, why wouldn’t the movement care more about protecting kids once they were born? Why wouldn’t these people be in the streets fighting for pre- and post-natal care or reducing the infant mortality rate (the U.S. ranks last in the world among the 27 most developed countries in infant mortality)? Why wouldn’t they be fighting just as aggressively for education?

No, the issue is religion and control. The religious view is that sex out of marriage is immoral and that babies are an appropriate punishment for this act. Women need to be disciplined and deserve the consequences of their immorality.

Fourth, people are going to seek options whether clinics exist or not. This means we have two choices. One, we can return to the days of coat hangers or two, we can offer safe medical procedures. We know from history that when we don’t offer safe medical procedures, women sought back-alley abortions and this was not a good thing.

Things I would change

I could have removed the question “Where’d all the Libertarians go btw?” This really wasn’t needed at all. I guess the one good thing it did was keep the comment conversational. All of the Libertarians really did disappear. This statement wasn’t needed though.

I try to encourage people to think about the phrase “I believe ___.”

You don’t have to use this phrase directly but the answer to it will often help you. What you want are short, strong statements about what you believe. The statement should motivate the people on your side, win independents, and make the opposition look “wrong”.

Why this works

It works because your goal is to win people over. It’s not to “prove them wrong”. If you set out to prove somebody wrong (especially in any type of online conversation), you’ve lost from the start.

Your goal should be to win people over.

At this point I usually get accused of being nice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “I’m not going to be nice to them.” I even had one guy tell me, and this is a direct quote: “All you can do is humiliate them.”

Jesus. Where does this shit come from?

The people you are talking with are only them if you treat them like them. I think of them as my neighbors and friends and people who I probably agree with on 90% of things even if they think of themselves as the most rabid raging conservative in existence.

Now I partly know where the them comes from. It comes from liberal bait like Elephant’s comment: “Except among the most cultish progressives who enjoy the exercise of their rights to murder a child.”

Statements like this feel like attacks and we feel like we need to attack back and “humiliate” them. This is the game: divide and conquer. The right-wing movement people want this game because their moral position is actually very weak. They want the conservative/liberal game because it’s much better than their real position of punishing women. The minute you take the bait and try to “humiliate” them, you lose.

The people behind the anti-abortion movement play an attacking game because they actually have a weak moral position. Their goal is to get you to play the liberal/conservative game and win with their strength in the media.

If attacked, what you want to do is keep your cool and restate your position. You may even want to ask people what they believe. You may not win over the die-hard conservatives, but you’ll win the independents and you’ll encourage the friendlies (who may be watching but don’t want to get into the idiot back and forth game) to step up and help out.

How do you know when you’re winning?

This is an important question that I think sometimes slips by the wayside in emotionally charged conversations.

In a personal or group setting, you know you’ve won people over if they are nodding their heads in agreement. Now this may not always be a literal nodding of their heads, but look for signs of agreement. Whether its head nodding or people saying similar things. Some sign that people are with you. In a group setting, I might even ask people what they think.

In an online forum, you want to look for similar signs, especially from independents. On Facebook, do they like the comment or post? What are the following comments like – do people echo your thoughts or is there backlash? Most importantly, do new people jump in? What does the opposition do?

In this case, let me tell you what happened and why it gave me confidence in my position.

Several people, people who don’t normally participate, liked my comment. That’s a good sign.

Another good sign is that the hard right conservatives went silent. My comment remained unchallenged. I was ready to restate my position if challenged, but I didn’t need to. In fact, if you have a strong position, you should welcome the chance to restate it as much as possible.

The opposition does not want a moral battle that is going to make them look bad. The opposition wants a battle where you look like you’re defending yourself as a “baby killer”.

Once I know I have the moral high ground, I welcome any opportunities to explain my position. I’m not ashamed. I’m not trying to “message” anyone.

I simply am comfortable with my beliefs and I know how to talk about them with people who I don’t see as enemies.

The idea that anyone is a “baby killer” is absolutely ridiculous. Instead of saying this though (where I would simply negate their accusation and we’d be in the right/left game), I demonstrated it by talking about what I believe and showing how we even have much in common.

If they want to go on about their beliefs, great. In fact, many times I will ask people and just get it out on the table.

How did Cliven Bundy lose?

Hint: Someone asked him what he believed.

When you have the better moral case, make it, don’t take the bait.

You’re losing if you’re in an endless emotional battle trying to humiliate someone you will never convince. If you have to agree to disagree with someone, that’s ok. You’re winning when independents and friendlies are siding with you.

A few other thoughts on the abortion discussion

  • Avoid the framing of fetuses as “babies”. They’re not. If you go to a pet store and ask for a baby cat, they don’t bring you a fetus. They bring you a kitten. A fetus is a collection of cells.
  • Don’t treat the issue lightly or make fun. It’s a horrible decision to have to make and I feel lucky I’ve never been involved in having to make the decision. It is true I am not a woman, but I can’t even imagine being involved as a father. I sympathize deeply with people who have chosen to make this decision. I simply believe people should have the freedom to plan their own families.
  • Where are the business leaders in Ohio? Does Cincinnati really want to become the largest metropolitan area in the country without access to safe procedures? How do businesses hope to attract top talent if we look like a religious backwater? I know countless people who have left because the region has a reputation as “conservative”. Yet here we are again trying to roll the region back to the 1950s. I didn’t talk about this economic argument online but wanted to mention it.
  • George Lakoff suggests that we shouldn’t use the term “abortion”. He suggests using “preventing development” instead. Personally, I don’t see this as much better. Abortion is a safe medical procedure and I think we should work to take the stigma out of it and define it as such. The rest of his article is worth a read though.

Why is this hard to do and what do you mean by “preconceived notions”?

It’s hard to do because it’s emotionally charged. We feel like we’re being accused of being “baby killers” and our gut reaction is to say “F*ck you! I’m not a baby killer.” This doesn’t help. Lakoff would say we’re still talking about baby killing.

Our second reaction is to try to dive into some kind of fact-based approach where we dispute the moment at which a collection of cells becomes a baby. Here, we’re also still talking about babies and we cede the moral argument once again to the right-wing. See why it’s so tough?

By preconceived notion, I largely mean that the discussion is about facts. Make no mistake, it is about beliefs. While it’s great to use facts to back up your beliefs, be sure to state your beliefs. Often, we either forget or don’t put enough emphasis on what we believe. We start with statistics when really we have some strong beliefs about freedom and responsibility.

This is why I suggest thinking about filling in the phrase “I believe ___.” How would you answer this question when it comes to abortion? What do you believe?

By the way, this approach also works with just about any issue.

I believe that government shouldn’t be legislating religious views. I also believe that people have sex as part of their normal lives and that we should teach our kids to be responsible about sex. We also know from experience that people will seek options in the best interests of their families. This is why we need safe medical procedures for abortion.

Easy, right?