Tips on Dialogue
by Rachel MacNair
Many times you’ll find yourself with opportunities to dialogue with individuals or small groups who aren’t familiar with the consistent life ethic. When these people are open-minded, these dialogues can feel very productive. When they’re not quite open-minded, the dialogues are still important in the long run.
We can run ads and be quoted in news stories and publish excellent blogs and Facebook posts and even whole books. But the person-to-person contact is where movement-building is at its strongest. Mere logic only gets us so far. People are social animals.
Here are some thoughts based on my experience of how to make dialogue effective, grouped according to type of audience. We’re talking about informal every-day kinds of discussions, where you weren’t necessarily planning to bring a topic up.
Follow what the other person is interested in, not necessarily what’s most important to you.
Use your own experience rather than mere logic. People relate to personal experience more, and it’s less of something to argue about.
Be mindful that they have experience, too. Combat veterans, and people who’ve had abortions or who’ve been closely involved with people who did, need a sensitive approach.
Gripe about media coverage. You can just about never go wrong with any activist on any issue doing that, and it might help build rapport.
Pro-lifers who aren’t Peace Advocates (yet)
First: assure them you’re pro-life
It’s a simple matter of showing you have sense enough to know it’s wrong to kill babies. Once that’s established, you’re sensible enough to speak of other things as well.
Also: address misunderstandings
A lot of people think the consistent life ethic waters down the abortion issue by saying pro-lifers must devote a great deal of time and energy to various other issues such as the death penalty, war, and poverty; it’s therefore a criticism of their work directed against abortion.
But we say that putting abortion in with other issues of violence strengthens the case against it. Also, there are peace-and-justice activists and sympathizers who find the consistent-life approach of linking issues far more persuasive.
If they cite cases of people using the “seamless garment” to water down the abortion issue, tell them that was a blatant mis-use. Mis-use isn’t confined to the consistent life ethic; after all, people also twist ideas like freedom and equality to support the violence of feticide.
Many have proposed that the consistent life ethic was invented to give politicians, especially Catholics, a pass when they support abortion availability, by declaring themselves for the nonviolent side on other issues. You can assure them that “giving a pass” is the opposite of what consistency does. Instead, the consistent life ethic is a challenge: if they’re good on opposing violence in other ways, why don’t they oppose feticide also?
Peace Advocates who aren’t Pro-lifers (yet):
Make sure to bring up your pro-peace bona fides, preferably before the topic of abortion even comes up. They need to know you’re a genuine peace-and-justice oriented person so that the stereotypes they may have of pro-lifers are broken at the start. They may think of pro-lifers as Martians, but you’ve shown you’re not a Martian before you reveal you’re a pro-lifer.
Back to the Comfort Zone
I have experience with a technique I call “Back to the Comfort Zone.” When you’re with an individual or group and there’s reason to bring up some criticism of abortion, something that fits the flow of conversation, then bring it up.
But suppose you’re in a situation where people weren’t expecting it – for example, you’re countering a misconception someone brought up without a clue that it’s a misconception. Or you bring up your own personal experience in a group unaware that people have such experiences.
Just as you see that they’re starting to get uncomfortable, just as they appear to be wondering how to deal with this unexpected information, just as they’re starting to process it as being perhaps a confrontation – then switch to another topic. One that makes them more comfortable and fits the flow of the conversation.
What you’ve done by bringing the topic up at all is that you’ve taken them out of their comfort zone. You’re not embarrassed, of course, because you’re confident in your understanding, but they’re embarrassed. Then, before they have time to react, put them back in the comfort zone. Confrontation doesn’t develop.
My experience is that by the end, they have positive things to say about you – after all, you rescued them from being out of their comfort zone. Therefore, you’ve succeeded at getting some pro-life education in, even though the setting is one where that’s not welcome.
With groups I have interacted with long-term, I’ve found people who started with hostility to any pro-lifers become, through the course of time, accepting of me as being one.
When there’s an Audience
Then you have the person who you think is open to dialogue, because upon finding you have a particular position, she starts challenging you with questions. In this situation, you’d be rude not to answer – but as soon as you do, she’s offended and then squelches you, saying things such as that the conversation is over; basically, you have no right to express an opinion different from hers.
This is always a serious bummer. It never feels at all right.
There’s not much you can do with such people. If you’re alone with them, let it go.
But if other people are around, pay attention to what they overhear (or, in the case of group e-mail exchanges, what they read). Some of them may benefit.
And some of them may be a little sympathetic to you, because it was the other person who was rude. Your original person may be closed down, but the others may not be at all. They may even be interested in more dialogue when out of earshot of that original person.
These techniques, drawn from my own experiences, are some ways of talking to people about the consistent life ethic. Consider your own experiences with these kinds of dialogues and find techniques that have worked for you. If you find a particular technique is especially effective, let others know about it!