Why I Won’t Write on You-Know-What
Or maybe I will
A couple years ago, in the heat of the Covid controversies, I wrote an article titled The Conspiracy Myth. I tried neither to debunk nor prove the conspiracy narrative around the origins of Covid. My thesis was that, like all myths, this narrative is a vehicle for hidden truths, psychological and social. These truths are independent of the objective factual content of the myth.
The results of publishing that essay were rather comical. Both the mainstream camp and the conspiracy camp thought I was a supporter of the other side.
Because I laid out the main arguments of the New World Order conspiracy theory without the obligatory derision, the mainstream accused me of legitimizing that theory. At best, I was creating a false equality, implying that the other side had a legitimate point of view worth engaging. At worst, I was deliberately trying to insinuate that narrative into the public mind.
Meanwhile, the conspiracy camp thought I was being mighty naive for treating their views as a myth rather than as factually true. Naive at best; at worst, “controlled opposition,” or a coward who dare not say what is obvious to any free-thinking person.
In the highly charged atmosphere of the time, each side read my article through a war lens: Which side is he on? Does this article serve us, or them? That lens blocks out nuance, synthesis, paradox, uncertainty, mystery, irony, and humor.
I don’t regret that article nor any of my controversial Covid-era writings. Plenty of people who were not ideologically committed found in them nourishment and sanity. But it was an instructive experience informing my future engagement with hot-button issues.
The Frame of the Debate
This brings me to the current topic of you-know-what. Actually, maybe you don’t know what. What am I referring to? Well, you can fill in the blank with whatever the current “thing” is. By the time I publish it, it will have already moved onto the next thing and the next before cycling back to this thing. Lately it has been abortion and gun control, both issues with two very distinct sides.
If I do write on them (and, despite the title of this piece, I might), it will be to ask questions that neither side asks, to unearth hidden agreements that both sides share, and to bring to light assumptions common to both sides that may not be true. In politics as in life, irreconcilable conflict is a gateway to a broader understanding. That is why paradox is so useful in spiritual traditions like Zen. A paradox reveals the insufficiency of one’s terms of understanding. It is a glitch in the matrix that reveals that one lives indeed in a matrix—something smaller than full reality.
The action of a paradox on the mind does not necessarily conclude with the resolution of the paradox. It may remain forever unanswered. Rather, given free rein, the paradox opens its host to new questions, new doubts, new discoveries, and a greater wholeness of mind.
The intractable conflicts of the culture wars are like paradoxes in the collective mind. Just as one cannot through ratiocination figure out the answer to a Zen koan, so also is public debate unable to reach a generally acceptable solution to the abortion question. We might be able to shut down debate, one side winning a political victory over the other, but the underlying tension remains, ready to erupt again through this or some other issue that harbors the same faulty shared assumptions, unasked questions, and tacit agreements.
It is not that I have no opinion on the issues of the day. I could easily apply my rhetorical skills to one or another side of the debate. If I did it well, one side would celebrate me and the other side would recoil in horror. The approving side would spread my article to every corner of their echo chamber, and I would gain a large following. This is a formula for success on the internet: become a champion of one side or another. Throw red meat to the partisan crowd.
The main reason I shy away from taking a side in debates around abortion, guns, and other current topics is that by engaging the debate, I implicitly accept the terms that frame the debate and affirm that this is indeed what we should be talking about right now. By my participation I bring attention to this question, and deflect it from that question. Not that this question is unimportant, but quite often the debates that our system allows onto the stage are those that serve the preservation of the system—whichever way they are resolved. I’d rather bring attention to the things we take for granted and to the people, places, and beings who are left out.
Imagine we live in a prison. The warden says, “OK, food rations are being reduced. We have to decide whether to give more food to the older prisoners, who are in more fragile health, or to the younger prisoners, who have more life ahead of them.” A furious debate ensues, with each side making valid moral appeals and sophisticated logical arguments. All the while, what is not talked about? Well, things like, Why must the rations be cut? Why aren’t we allowed to have prison gardens? Why we are in prison to begin with? If the warden successfully defines the debate, his power will never suffer challenge. He has contrived a debate that can never end, because in fact both sides are right.
Both Sides are Right
In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, two men are having a dispute. One of them makes his point, and Tevye the dairyman says, “He is right!”
The other man makes his own, contradictory point. Tevye again says, looking at the second man, “He is right!”
The Rabbi, also present on the scene, objects, “He is right and he is right? They can’t both be right.”
Tevye looks at the Rabbi. “You know, you are also right.”
On one level, the scene establishes the character of Tevye, a simple man who wants to get along with everyone. All of us can relate to the urge to affirm silly or disagreeable opinions in order to maintain social harmony, and the sometimes comical discomfort of being caught in the middle.
But there is more to it than that. You may have had the experience of being a confidante to each person in a fighting couple. You hear her tell her side of the story, and it seems obvious that she is in the right. You might share her indignation and vow to support her in the struggle. But then you hear the other party tell his side of the story. He explains, justifies, and rebuts everything the other had said. You think, “How could I have been taken in so easily? It is he who is in the right, and she in the wrong.”
Needless to say, if you follow up with the first party, you could easily swing back to her side. The compassionate, trusting listener visits the aggrieved party’s reality. In that reality, of course she or he is right.
How could it be otherwise? If I were her, in the totality of her circumstances and experiences, naturally I would see things the way she does. She is not stupid. She is not evil. She is simply experiencing things as a human being does in that situation. In a sense then, both parties are “right.”
Both parties are also limited. Their disagreement stems from the fact that at least one and probably both of them are not seeing something that the other sees. And the most common and significant oversight of all is to not understand what it is like to be the other person. Where is he coming from? What does he see, think, and feel? If each is able to see the other party as a full human being and ask these questions with sincere curiosity, usually they can make progress in the dispute. They might still have a disagreement, but they will intuitively recognize that the other is a friend—someone who cares about them as a full human being—even if they are at the same time an enemy. Neither will be laboring under the assumption that the other person is just irrational, stupid, or reprehensible.
OK, maybe some people are irrational, stupid, or reprehensible. Maybe we all are, sometimes. But so often, that default assumption, that reflexive judgment, is what keeps disputes boiling for years.
How Could it be Love?
I have hesitated to say anything about the abortion question at this time, mostly because when the debate is so heated, there is little listening for nuance or for any perspective that transcends defined, polarized views. Partisans judge everything according to which side it serves; if it does not clearly serve their own side, then it is anathema. What I am about to say will probably be anathema to both sides.
When I listen to the arguments and enter into the reality of either the pro-choice or pro-life side, I find myself in their agreement-field. “You’re right!” I think. It is not that I agree with all of their points or accept their logic. It is that I feel where they are coming from.
Here is something that may be upsetting to partisans on either side: In my experience, the basic emotional character of activists on both sides is quite similar. Indignation, outrage, protectiveness, love, care, and compassion each take their turn, usually accompanied by disgust for the other side. Mostly though, each side comes from love. That is easy to accept about your own side. It is hard to accept about the other side.
How could it be love, when they are trying to strip women of basic sovereignty over their own bodies?
How could it be love, when they are allowing the murder of innocent babies?
Whatever side you are on, please consider the following question: Are you willing to give up the view of the other side as less loving than yourself, if that will result in progress on this issue?
Now I will leave a blank space in this essay for people to fill in with dismissals like “both sides-ism” and “false equivalency.” Here, let me help. “By asserting that the pro-_____ side even has valid ground to stand on and is anything other than misguided at best, immoral, degenerate, and idiotic, Eisenstein is offering them aid and comfort, gaslighting those on the side of truth and goodness, and obstructing the movement toward protecting ______. On this issue, only one side has any validity and Eisenstein is implying otherwise.”
OK, I hope I have established that I am at least not oblivious to this criticism. In fact, the criticism exemplifies the point I am trying to make. Essentially, it dehumanizes the other side, just as each of a fighting couple might insist that the other is wholly inexcusable. It also illustrates how compelling “I’m right” feels. From one’s own vantage point, it is indeed hard to understand how anyone could not see it as one sees it oneself.
Pro-life and Pro-choice
Different as our vantage points may be, in fact human beings are in broad agreement in their basic moral impulses. This fact is often lost in the heat and roar of a political debate that divides society into warring opinion tribes. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, vanishingly few people actually relish the thought of millions of fetuses being suctioned out of the womb. And vanishingly few people relish the thought of unwilling women being forced to bear babies they do not want. If we can affirm this basic truth, we will have a foundation for peace.
Of course, genuine differences of opinion exist within this basic moral consensus. For example, while most people are horrified when they learn of the gruesome details of second-trimester abortions, in which the fetus shrinks in fear from the instruments before they painfully dismember him or her, many are not so disturbed by first-trimester abortions, when the embryo or zygote may be no more complex or differentiated than a jellyfish. Pro-choice advocates therefore construct moral arguments based on the degree of sentience of the aborted embryo, while those on the pro-life side assert the existence of a uniquely human soul no less present in a fertilized egg than in an adult human being. The debates resulting from this disagreement are significant, but let us not allow them to obscure our broad moral agreements.
I am suggesting here that we reject one of the primary “invisible shared beliefs’ referenced earlier: the belief that one side is composed of moral imbeciles. Judging by the rhetoric in the media, both sides seem to agree on this, differing only in which side they think it is. Only by letting go of that assumption will progress be possible.
On this most divisive of issues (in the US that is), a possibility still remains to find a center. To do that, we must first stop demonizing the people on the other side, and instead venture into their camp and experience “You’re right.” Listen to their stories. See their humanity, from a vantage of humility not patronizing superiority. Your opinions may not change, but something will change. We will have a chance to replace culture war with culture peace, because we won’t see the other side as irredeemable enemies. We will also be able to see underlying issues that the smoke of the debate obscures.
If you have are still wondering, “Is he pro-life or pro-choice? Does he support Roe v. Wade or not?” then I am afraid my point has been lost. Yes, I do have opinions—strong ones. And I think that if we hold all else in stasis, these are important opinions, and I hope “my side” prevails. I have not written this essay in service to my opinion on Roe v. Wade, however, because I believe we need not hold all else in stasis. We can change the ground conditions that produce the debate in the first place. That is where I want to direct our attention.
But let’s do an experiment. How about I reveal my personal opinion. Then see how it changes your receptivity to what I am saying. I’ll put it in a footnote.1 There. Does that make it OK to receive the rest of these words? Or does that make it not OK? Am I safely on your side? Am I an enemy? Does some part of you think, “Aha! I knew he had an agenda.” In the war society we live in, it is hard to conceive of something serving anything else but victory.
I just cut about fifteen paragraphs from this essay. They described the social, political, economic, and moral conditions that make abortion such an issue to begin with. But I realized they were so loaded with various triggers that, as before, each side would abhor it as serving the narrative of the other side.
So instead, for now, I’ll skip to the end of those paragraphs to say that while most of us are in some sense both pro-choice and pro-life, we live in a society that is in important ways anti-choice and anti-life. That is the circumstance that generates an irresolvable abortion debate.
Our society is anti-choice, in that it has reduced the chooser to an atomized individual in relationship mainly to the market and the state. Real self-determination does not mean one is oblivious to the needs of others. It draws together a multitude of relationships, social and ecological, that weave a person into a matrix of being. Who I am makes sense only in terms of how I relate. As technology and money mediate more and more of our relationships, they grind people into a state of helplessness. Authorship over one’s own life succumbs to the demands of distant authorities and economic institutions. It is no longer a village that gestates, bears, and raises a child. The choice devolves onto the individual woman, or the state. The assumption that this is a matter of state authority is already a sign of profound social breakdown.
Our society is also anti-life. It is built on a value system that does not hold life sacred. What do we care about and what do we serve as a species? Where do we pour our resources? Civilization’s ambition has long been to conquer nature, dominate the body, and transcend materiality, to enter the exalted realm of spirit, of mind, of number, of the machine. This ambition is fundamentally anti-life. It shows up in the economic system, which rewards those activities that contribute to the techno-transcendent ambition. What kind of crazy society is it that richly rewards hedge fund managers, somewhat rewards anyone who joins the workforce, but offers no support at all to people who devote themselves to bearing and rearing children? Well, it is the same kind of crazy society that destroys forests, oceans, soil, and life.
When our society fully reorganizes itself around service to life on every level, the abortion issue will slip into insignificance.
The first step toward any systemic solution is to make peace in the culture war. Accepting a false view of people with different opinions, we tear each other apart despite the vast moral common ground I’ve described. Most people are both pro-life and pro-choice. We love babies. We want women to have sovereignty over their own bodies.
I don’t know exactly what agreements and compromises will come from making peace in the culture war. Whatever they are, they will come from compassion. Real solutions require that we are familiar with the full situation, and it is compassion that accesses information otherwise locked behind the doors of assumption and judgment. Compassion is the sincere attempt to enter another person’s world of experience. (A fetus in the womb. A woman pregnant and alone and scared.) What is it like to be you?
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I support Roe v. Wade. I don’t think the state should force a woman to carry a pregancy she does not want.