Today I had a conversation with a woman about politics. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in D.C. Invariably the conversation led to abortion. She is staunchly pro-choice, and pro-choice in the sense that she sees abortion as an absolute right, unwilling to even discuss the prospect that the fetus' life has value. She told me she felt the fetus wasn't a person until it was born, and she was entirely unwilling to discuss the question of life beyond her base assertion. I didn't feel there was much room for compromise in her position, or throughout the conversation.
I, on the other hand, am staunchly pro-life, because I believe that life begins at conception. This is hardly news. However, at the same time, I sincerely believe that there is great room for compromise on the issue. Obviously it is a widely polarized debate, and only the shrillest voices on either side are heard, however, I honestly feel that there is a plenty of ground for the two sides to agree on. Chiefly I think consensus can be reached in addressing the causes and effects of unwanted pregnancy through methods other than abortion (for example, I think we should improve our sex education, liberalize adoption laws, and seriously consider providing free childcare for parents below a certain income level, all three of which would address different problems associated with unwanted pregnancies). Recognizing that unwanted pregnancies are a serious problem, we have two non-exclusive sets of options to draw from: we can reduce the pregnancies (better sex education, pregnancy prevention, and/or abortion), or we can reduce the unwantedness (free childcare, better adoption programs, health care for mothers and children, etc).
This is a position I've really taken to lately, and even proposed it as a research topic in a fellowship I recently applied to. I think it has a lot of promise.
What is frustrating to me - and what is I suppose constitutes the thesis of this post (4 paragraphs in... really quality writing, Matt) - is that in response to my very middle ground views (and let's face it, trying to work to compromise on abortion is very middle ground) many people still want to label me as a conservative or Republican. This is true both of the issue ("he's conservative on abortion") and more generally ("he takes the pro-life position because he's a Republican").
Of the two, the later is obviously the more pernicious scourge, though even the first is problematic. You see both types of labeling all the time, and I'm sure I'm guilty of it too. Labels provide an easy way to summarize and categorize someone's viewpoint, and in so doing marginalize what they're really saying. For example, by labeling me "conservative on abortion" the woman was able to essentially ignore the fact that I was putting forth some very new and constructive arguments in favor of a middle ground position. She didn't want to change (or, it seemed to me, even rethink) her position on the issue, and so instead she used a convenient label to overlook what I was actually saying.
I know I do the same sort of thing when discussing theology. If someone presents to me a literal interpretation view of the Bible, it's very easy for me to say to myself, "Ah ha! They're taking a fundamentalist approach to Scripture." Then, instead of actually engaging in the new conversation, I often re-live previous discussions of the issue, and bring out old arguments that I've used time and time again. To some extent these labels can be useful, particularly if nothing new is actually being said. But we need to be very careful in using them, because if they prevent us from listening to new ideas and arguments on an issue then they're doing more harm than good.
The second type of labeling, the more insidious type, is labeling someone as something general because of a single belief or limited set of beliefs. Today I was told I was a conservative and a Republican because of my pro-life beliefs (no regard was given to the middle ground position I actually advocate). Quite simply, I am neither a Republican, nor a conservative. Talk to me about health care or welfare reform or minimum wage laws or capital punishment or taxes and you'll certainly conclude I'm not a Republican. This woman knows how I feel about most of those issues, so why would she label me a conservative for my singular belief on abortion? I think the reason is because she actually wanted to dismiss what I was saying. In labeling me "conservative on abortion" she could ignore what I was saying. But in labeling me "a conservative" she was able to dismiss my ideas as "typically conservative". She has already drawn a conclusion for herself that conservative ideas are bad ideas, and therefore can dismiss them out of hand.
The logic here is of course flawed. Because she disagreed with my position, she identified me as a conservative. Then, because I was a conservative, I was presenting a conservative idea. Because it was a conservative idea, it was a bad idea. Nevermind the fact that my idea wasn't actually conservative (or bad for that matter). The label enabled her conclusion; it led her to dismiss my idea as bad without ever actually stopping to think about the idea.
It's a frustrating feeling, being labeled something you're not. It's even more frustrating when the result of that is people ignoring or dismissing your ideas. We all do it. I'm sure it's in our nature. But we ought to do our best to root it out. Labels can be helpful. But just like any tool, when used improperly they can be terribly destructive.
It looks a lot like engine oil
And tastes like being poor and small