Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Abortion and Evasive Thinking [Jay]

The other night I took a break from subject specific study to peruse Open Letters – Selected Writings of Vaclav Havel. Havel was an outspoken young playwright that would become the voice of dissidence in Czechoslovakia and ultimately the president of his country. The second essay in the book is entitled “On Evasive Thinking” and I thought it was worth a quick discussion.

It was originally given as a speech to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in 1965 at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's freedom at the end of World War II. Havel criticizes an article written after a woman was killed when window ledge fell off of a dilapidated building and landed on her in the street below. The writer of the article acknowledged the window ledge should not have fallen from disrepair but quickly turned the subject matter to how great it was that they were allowed to protest at all. How wonderful it is to have that freedom and how great it is that Czechoslovakia had advanced and modernized in women's fashions. Ultimately, the writer warned that, instead of protesting municipal matters, literature ought to be focused on the hope for the future of mankind.

This is what Havel calls evasive thinking. There is an issue at hand that has raised protest. Buildings were falling into disrepair in socialist Czechoslovakia and as a result of necessary work not being done a ledge fell off and killed a woman. What does that have to do with the freedom to protest or the fashion choices of Czechoslovakian women? Nothing at all is the answer. So why is the object of Havel's criticism going on about that stuff?

Here is Havel in his own words:

This way of thinking, in my opinion, is causing immense damage. The essence of it is that certain established dialectical patterns are deformed and fetishized and thus become an immobile system of intellectual and phraseological schemata which, when applied to different kinds of reality, seem at first to have achieved, admirably, a heightened ideological view of that reality, whereas in fact they have, without our noticing it, separated thought from its immediate contact with reality and thus crippled its capacity to intervene in that reality effectively.

He says that our words become more important than the subject we are talking about such that:

It's enough to call a fallen window ledge a “local matter,” and criticism of the way buildings are maintained as “municipal criticism.” and we immediately feel that nothing so terrible has happened... And finally, when you need to save money by leaving the upkeep of buildings not to a superintendent, but to a voluntary brigade of doctors, lawyers, and office clerks working on weekends, you need only to call it “socialist maintenance by tenants” and a doctor chipping away at a rotting window ledge on his building is warmed by the feeling that in doing so, he is helping to fulfill some higher phase in the development of socialism.

What has any of this to do with LTI or the pro-life position? I think quite a lot when you look at what Havel was saying. He criticized thought that vacillated between “on the one hand – but on the other hand” and “in a certain sense, yes – but in another sense, no” saying that when we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the ability to influence reality effectively. Criticism must be direct and on point and must be met in the same manner. When window ledges fall and kill people from disrepair, it does no good to pontificate about the nature of comparative freedom and the hope of the future and the destiny of man because, as happened shortly after the first incident, another window ledge is likely to fall and kill someone else (this time a man). So the advice to consider broader visions of humanity rings toothless in the ears of people worried that it is not safe to walk the streets.

So what is abortion about? What is the point in contention? Simply stated, it is now legal in the United States to kill unborn human beings and because of that legality we do kill unborn human beings at the pace of about 1.2 million per year in our country. The unborn are unquestionably human and unquestionably alive and pro-lifers contend that the unjust taking of human life is a moral offense that ought to be prevented and not a legal right that ought to be granted. Human beings matter and killing them without extreme justification is wrong.

There are ways to respond to this claim, but all legitimate responses must answer the question at hand. What are the unborn and why are we permitted to do what we are doing to them? The Supreme Court rulings are an embarrassment in this regard as they continually abdicate their responsibility to successfully identify the unborn while simultaneously legalizing the massive destruction of the unborn. They are not alone.

Reading Havel's examples of evasive phrasings reminded me of some of the conversations I have with defenders of abortion rights. “The unborn may be fully human in a certain sense – but then again they may not in another sense. There may possibly be such a thing as human non-persons. Since that is possible, are you going force your unproven beliefs on others?” Or “on the one hand they are human – but on the other hand is simple genetic identification enough to make us human? How do we identify morally valuable humans really? Isn't it obvious that some human beings are not valuable? Isn't it obvious that some animals share more in common with some humans than other humans do?”

It doesn't stop there. We just keep rolling on down the hill. “I understand that the unborn may be fully human, but what about the right to economic and vocational equality for women? Don't you believe that women should be equal to men? Don't you think women should be liberated from their reproductive systems?”

Ultimately, we arrive at the sea of absolute uncertainty where we cannot know if anything is truly right and wrong so we must assume that all rights are granted and that the identity of humanity as a category is absolutely in question. They would never phrase it like this but we have moved to where the substance of their arguments is something like, “On the one hand I like laws against murder and laws that protect me and my interest, but on the other hand I cannot see why people have rights beyond what we grant them and struggle to understand what you mean by people at all.”

It looks to me like the very definition of evasive thinking with all the tell tale signs of separating thought from its immediate contact with reality. Once you have become so intelligent that you can no longer recognize and identify a human being you have become far too smart for me. I remember a Stand to Reason Blog comment thread where a clever fellow waxed on about the question of genetic variations acceptable within the category of humanity and disingenuously pleading with someone to help him understand how we can accurately identify human beings. A fellow commenter very simply replied, “They have human parents for a start.”

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Eugenics and Other Evils how captivated and hypnotized people can become with complicated thought and how startled they can be when we use blunt terms to simplify matters. That is one of our goals here at LTI. The pro-life argument begins with a very basic observation that must be addressed. A particular class of human life is actively and legally being killed every day. Why is it OK to treat this class of humanity in a manner that we reject as inarguably immoral for most every other category of human being?

If the evasive language mentioned above is embraced then aborting human beings may be nothing because the unborn possibly do not matter. In fact, by killing unborn human beings you may be participating in the liberation of women and leveling the economic playing field. Isn't that lovely? Besides, it is questionable whether we have any real objective human rights and human life is difficult to define so there might not be such a thing as humanity at all. This is all so complicated that whatever you think we simply cannot take any actual action in the real world based this sea of differing opinions. So kill as many as you like.

That line of thinking won't do. There is an urgency to this argument. Life is being destroyed every day, moment by moment, even as I write this long blog post and as you later read it. It is not an academic exercise, it is a direct question far more harrowing than the fact that people were being killed by falling window ledges in Czechoslovakia in 1965. Human beings are being killed by the millions. Why is this OK? Havel's point on evasive thinking should be a reminder that we need to watch out for clever arguments that ultimately take us so far adrift that we are disconnected from the real question at hand and how we can influence the real world.

We know what we are doing to them, so what is it about the unborn that makes this acceptable? It is a question about the identity of the unborn, and the answer must address the unborn directly.