The echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.
I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.
I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.
I used to be anti-abortion.
I grew up Catholic, and my religion was a formative part of my life. I learned from my religion a number of wonderful things, such as an ideal of service to others; a call to love and forgive; and an impetus to recognize and conquer my own flaws.
I also learned that human life was sacred, and thus that abortion was murder.
The first time I did any advocacy, it was to stand on the side of the road with signs saying “abortion kills children” and “stop murdering the innocent.” I believed it, and I felt like it was just. Like lots of people, I felt the truth was so powerful that other people would just hear it and realize. But truth is messy, and if you ever find yourself thinking it isn’t, that should be a red flag that you aren’t thinking critically about your own ideas.
Pro-choice and feminist activists are fond of observing that many Christians are pro-life only until birth. In a different way, this is also sort of true from the inside—or at least it was for me. As a Catholic, a person without sin is a precious ideal; as a Catholic, original sin is inherited, but personal sins accumulate only when you begin to encounter the world; as a Catholic, human life in the womb is the most holy a person can be on this Earth. Thus, protecting that life, I learned, was the one of the most important things you could ever do.
I do not mention this as an excuse. I mention this because I think it’s important to understand how we reached our conclusion. It’s important to understand that it works more as an article of faith than an article of knowledge. The idea of innocence is what makes it possible to live when you feel surrounded by sin. Protecting innocence feels like a sacred duty. The Christian ideal of service and the belief in unborn innocence work well together, or at least they do if you don’t notice that while elevating innocence, you are also marginalizing women.
When I went to college, I was surrounded by a lot of people who understood abortion with a lot more nuance than I ever had. I still had the ideal of service, and I still had the ideal of innocence, but I also started to see that other people, who I nonetheless respected, did not agree with me. I started to encounter people who could make reasoned arguments about respecting bodily autonomy.
Without meaning to, I started to see the glaring conflict I had previously glossed over: the conflict between the rights of two human beings. As a Catholic, I had easily come down on the side of the unborn, downgrading the rights and humanity of women along the way. I slowly realized that it wasn’t quite so evil and selfish to come down the other way—to respect the rights of a person over the rights of a human, but barely developed, embryo.
I also started to feel like I really didn’t understand the subject well enough to have so firm an opinion as I had. I started to express my opinion less firmly, and so it became less firm. And so I began to realize my certainty was manufactured, and my conclusion was self-contained. Other people had different conclusions, and they had concrete arguments for those conclusions. They had scientific evidence, and they also had stories of real harm and real people struggling with hard decisions. The former was less convincing, since it didn’t address my belief in innocent souls, but the latter put my ideal of service in conflict with my conclusion.
In parallel, I mostly stopped being Catholic, and as my fervent beliefs became questioning beliefs, my reasons for opposing abortion began to seem very small and poorly-formed.
When I learned someone I deeply respected had had an abortion, I had traveled a long way from my original certainty. I heard how she had made a frustrating, soul-searching, painful decision, and that she didn’t want to share that knowledge with anyone she didn’t trust. It was obvious that only a fool would presume to judge her, so I didn’t. It wasn’t until later that I noticed I hadn’t.
I mark that point, not as a point of change so much as the apex of the arc, the point when I can look back and see my views shifting, on balance, from one side to the other. It was a few more years before I would feel comfortable calling myself pro-choice and identifying as feminist. There wasn’t one moment that I changed my mind, and there wasn’t one thing that convinced me; evidence only led me to change once I acknowledged that change was okay.
And I am so far now from where I began that I can only conjure up my old ideas through conscious choice. It’s painful to do it; it feels like putting on old clothing that itches and twists and refuses to fit. But of course it does—our memories are notoriously unreliable, and we continually reinterpret our history through the lens of our present. If we let it, who we are will bleed into who we used to be. If we don’t choose to remember, eventually we won’t be able to.
And, because we project our selves onto the capacity of others, if we do not recall the ways we have changed, we will start to think no one can. And then we start to write off the possibility, in others, in the world, and in ourselves.
So, when the echo-chambers echo with judgment and certainty, I think we should listen a little less, and remember a little more.
Image Credit: Ian Barbour