File under “least surprising story ever:” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ellen Goodman recently had an invitation to speak at St. Francis University on the topic of “civility,” but ended up having her invitation revoked because she’s pro-choice and St. Francis is a Catholic university. This sort of thing is happening more frequently nowadays as the anti-choice movement gets more radical, and Catholic schools are feeling more pressure from the movement to put misogynist religious dogma ahead of their academic mission to encourage free discourse. Goodman herself reacted by saying, “Imagine my disappointment at having my plea for civility returned with a pie in the face.”
I think the lesson in all this is that there are limits to the concept of civil discourse. I appreciate Goodman’s desire for people to turn down the volume on the hostility and anger—her lecture was to be titled “A Civil Tongue: Welcome to the era of polarized politics, food fight cable shows, and ballistic blogging. How civility was shattered, who is winning, who is losing, and how do we call a truce to the mud wrestling”—but there’s really no way for anti-choicers to conduct themselves civilly when promoting their cause. After all, the cause itself is uncivil. Civil people don’t nose around in other people’s private lives, try to impose their weird religious dogma on the unwilling, or try to destroy other people’s pleasure just for the sake of doing it. But that is functionally what the anti-choice movement is about. If they applied their approach to sex when approaching food, they’d be running around jeering at people in restaurants for eating for pleasure, and they’d run ads showing the contents of the toilet after #2 with language suggesting that since poo is disgusting, the practice of eating for pleasure should be ended. Civil people mind their own business when it comes to other people’s sexual and medical choices, so long as everything involves consenting adults. Being anti-choice is simply the opposite of civility.
In this sense, a call for civility is likely as big an offense to anti-choice sensibilities as being pro-choice is. My conception of an ideal civil political discourse has less to do with turning down the snark and the name-calling than it does turning up the reliance on facts and reason. If our political system became more civil, it would do serious damage therefore to the anti-choice cause.
A civil political discourse, for instance, would not have room for lying in it. This would destroy the anti-choice movement as we know it. The movement relies on a number of different kinds of lies to function. There’s the most basic lying about medical facts: the claims that fetuses are more developed than they are at certain ages, the claims that women have late term abortions for capricious reasons, the claim that abortion causes depression and breast cancer, the claim that condoms don’t prevent HIV, etc. Then there’s the lying to misrepresent themselves, especially in the way that anti-choicers will claim to mainstream media that they’re only in this for the fetuses, but when they are speaking to each other, they’re very clear that this is about repressing sex and putting women back into the kitchen. Then there’s what may be the most troubling lying of all: pretending that people who act out violently against clinics and providers are lone wolves, when in fact they tend to come right out of the movement.
A civil political discourse doesn’t feature direct abuse of the people most affected by the policy being debated. For instance, the debate over welfare reform, while ugly in parts, didn’t feature people from the conservative side of the debate showing up at welfare offices and screaming vitriol at people showing up to apply for benefits. (Of course, if we had that debate now, such is the level of discourse in this country that Tea Partiers probably would.) But that’s not how the anti-choice movement rolls. No, they are perfectly happy to express their dissatisfaction at women having their legal rights by finding women exercising them and yelling at them in order to make what’s already a bad day for those women even worse. And worse, if you call clinic harassers out for their behavior, they act quite uncivilly and lie about what they’re doing, claiming that they’re just trying to “counsel” the women and pray for them. Which is a lie that’s particularly easy to see through if you’ve ever had someone do the tight-lipped, passive-aggressive “I’ll pray for you” maneuver in your direction; that’s when it becomes clear that “I’ll pray for you” is just a euphemistic substitute for calling someone an awful name.
Pro-choice activists have been struggling with the problem of dealing with an opposition that’s inherently uncivil for decades now. What I see with the Tea Party is that the character and strategies of the anti-choice movement have expanded dramatically, taking over other conservative issues until the norm for conservatives is this heavy dependence on lying and this vicious attitude not just towards your political opponents, but towards ordinary people who are affected by policy decisions. Anti-choicers harassing people at clinics have become the Tea Partiers showing up at Republican debates and cheering wildly for the idea of a man dying from lack of insurance or the idea of deporting kids who were raised (but not born) in the U.S., instead of allowing them to get an education in the only place they’ve known as home.