Dialog on Life Issues: Avoiding Some Obstacles to Communication
by John Whitehead
An essential part of consistent life ethic advocacy is learning how to talk about the ethic or specific life issues to people with differing views. In a recent post for us, Josh Brahm of the Equal Rights Institute (ERI) offered some good tips for constructive dialog. I offer further thoughts, partly inspired by ERI’s work on the topic.
The Cooperative Ideal and Adversarial Reality
Dialog about life issues should ideally be cooperative, with people sharing and considering each other’s views, identifying common ground and differences, and listening to criticisms. While they probably won’t agree, they’ll at least reach a better understanding. Perhaps, over time and after enough good dialogs, people might reconsider.
This ideal is rarely realized. Most dialogs are not cooperative but adversarial. Each side behaves like a lawyer conducting an aggressive cross-examination of a witness. Each treats the other as someone whose views are suspect and deserve rigorously skeptical, if not hostile, scrutiny. Each side tries to trip up the other, to catch the other in a contradiction, inconsistency, or other fault.
How does this approach prevent people from honestly answering questions about their views?
No one wants to answer questions posed to trap them or make them look foolish. No one wants to be in the vulnerable position of the witness being cross-examined by the hostile lawyer. Therefore, people in an adversarial dialog will likely do two things.
- To not be trapped, they’ll avoid giving direct or clear answers when they don’t have some ready-made, “safe” reply.
- They’ll try going on the offensive, to reverse the lawyer-witness approach.
When this back-and-forth takes over a dialog, people will end up not only still disagreeing (which was probably inevitable) but not even understanding each other’s views. Why should they? The whole dialog was directed not to mutual understanding and an honest exploration of the issue, but to avoiding being trapped and humiliated.
Two types of questions can especially lead a dialog to become adversarial and unproductive.
Difficult Question #1: Hard Cases
Someone will frequently ask about “hard cases” that seemingly challenge a commitment to nonviolence.
- On abortion: “What if a woman becomes pregnant because of rape?” or “What if continuing a pregnancy would threaten a woman’s life?”
- On the death penalty: “What about a remorseless killer who killed people in prison?” or “What about when convicted murderers have escaped from prison?”
- On euthanasia: “What if a terminally ill person is in excruciating pain that medicine cannot relieve?”
- On war: “What if a ruthless tyrant is committing genocide?”
There’s an obvious objection to such questions (which I will get to), but they aren’t inherently unreasonable. Considering the full implications of a commitment to nonviolence and how to apply the consistent life ethic to extreme situations is worthwhile. Moreover, as Josh Brahm and Rachel Crawford of ERI explain in a great video on questions about abortion in cases of rape, questions about hard cases help people in dialog fully understand what the other person believes.
When questions about hard cases come up, however, we might feel reluctant to answer them. Such questions often come across as a trap set by the questioner. If we respond by insisting on adherence to nonviolence, the other person will attack us as fanatical or uncaring. If we respond by making an exception or expressing uncertainty, that person will attack us as inconsistent or hypocritical.
Faced with an apparent trap, a consistent life ethic advocate might understandably choose not to answer the question. Instead, the advocate might raise that obvious objection and point out that such hard cases are rare, extreme situations. Most acts of violence we oppose don’t resemble these examples, and how we deal with unusual hard cases shouldn’t determine how we generally deal with violence.
This response is correct, but the person posing the hard-cases question will probably see it as an evasion. The questioner might come away from the dialog not knowing what the consistent life ethic advocate really thinks about hard cases, while dismissing the advocate for dodging difficult questions.
A response which might move the dialog closer to cooperation could be to say something like “That’s a good question, and I’ll do my best to answer it. Once I do, though, I’d like to ask you a question. Once we’ve both given our answers, let’s talk about them.” The advocate could then give an honest answer to the hard-case question.
After that, the advocate could ask the other person: “What about cases that aren’t as extreme?” What about a pregnancy that isn’t life threatening? A killer who has shown remorse? A terminally ill person who isn’t in unmanageable pain? Do you think abortion or execution or suicide is appropriate in those cases?
Such an approach addresses the hard cases question while encouraging both people to present their beliefs for scrutiny. It steps away from an adversarial relationship toward more of a mutual exchange of views.
Difficult Question #2: Alternatives
Someone might ask, “What’s the alternative?” If we don’t support violence, how do we address the problem or injustice that the violence (supposedly) corrects?
Again, this is a fair question. It’s even more reasonable than the hard-cases questions, since finding alternatives is relevant to all cases of violence, not just hard cases. Yet I think such a question can easily provoke the same kind of wariness and reluctance, for two reasons.
The obvious reason is that the question shifts scrutiny onto the consistent life ethic advocate. Given the variety and complexity of situations of violence, coming up with an adequate, practical nonviolent solution will often be challenging.
The subtler reason is that the advocate might see a request for alternatives as a way of setting unfavorable terms. When the question is “Does a practical alternative to this type of violence exist?” the implied follow-up question might be “If no practical alternative exists, then doesn’t that mean the violence is justified?” The consistent life ethic advocate would understandably see accepting such terms of discussion as conceding too much.
A preferred approach might be first to reject the violence as unacceptable and, with this rejection clearly established, only then consider alternatives.
To illustrate: When the subject of targeted killing by the U.S. government as a counter-terrorism policy comes up, I’ve encountered the “What’s the alternative?” question. How do we stop terrorism if we don’t kill alleged terrorists without trial?
My main reaction is to think “I don’t have to provide an alternative.” We should simply reject assassination as wrong and then, having ruled out such acts, consider what would be acceptable alternative counter-terrorism policies. The same could be said of torture. The notion that assassination or torture should be viewed as “open to consideration pending a practical alternative” strikes me as a very slanted starting point for discussion.
Still, the problem remains that not answering the question “What’s the alternative?” will come across as evasive and not promote constructive dialog. Not providing an alternative is especially unfortunate if the other person is sympathetic to the consistent life ethic advocate’s position but is held back from agreement by the sense that no nonviolent solution is available.
To avoid this problem, proposing a mutual exchange of views again might be helpful. Perhaps when someone asks about the alternative to some type of violence, we could answer as best we can and then pose a question of our own: “Maybe my alternative solution has problems, but since you asked about alternatives, let me ask: Do you think a practical alternative to [this type of violence] would be a good thing? Even if my solution isn’t the best, is it still worth looking for alternatives?”
If the other person agrees to this much, then the consistent life ethic advocate can point to a clear area of common ground. Both people agree the violence being discussed is undesirable and an alternative is worth finding. This might help restore a spirit of cooperation to the discussion.
Dialog with those we disagree with is always challenging, especially when difficult questions are involved. I’m not suggesting my proposed approaches are the best or only ways of handling these questions. I think, however, that consistent life ethic advocates should find honest ways of answering such questions while trying to move dialog from an adversarial to a cooperative stance. I encourage others to develop their own approaches so we can have good, constructive dialogs on life issues.
For more of our posts on dialog, see:
Tips on Dialogue / Rachel MacNair