I love the way the internet helps you get around the world in minutes. For example, my man Zach links to a news and views round-up by Trevin Wax which links to an opinion piece by Bryan Kemper over at LifeNews.com called “Responding to: How Dare You Compare Abortion to the Holocaust or Slavery.” That’s around the world in about 8 seconds! Or at least around the evangelical blogger world in 8 seconds.
Information and opinions travel quickly on the internet. And that means we’re prone to gathering and absorbing views and opinions with far too much speed to carefully consider alternatives. I’d like to offer one to Mr. Kemper’s piece.
You see, I’m firmly pro-life and anti-abortion. And I’m also one of those persons who responds, “How dare you compare abortion to slavery?!” You can read an earlier post on this issue here. But here’s what I’d like to add as friendly fire to a soldier in a war I care about, who does not appear to understand how his rhetorical gunfire affects the one in the trench next to him. In other words, this is why I’d say “how dare you…” to my ally Mr. Kemper.
First, how dare you? In other words, the way most people make this comparison strikes me as essentially self-serving in a way that many African-Americans feel continues to under-affirm their humanity. The comparison sometimes goes like this:
a) All fetuses are human beings (their DNA, origin, and progress prove this that they are human, not monkeys, dogs, etc.)
b) All human beings are persons
c) Therefore, all persons deserve equal respect, value and protection.
Okay, the argument is basically fine. But read Mr. Kemper’s opinion piece and tell me how many times he seems to deeply affirm the human pain and suffering African Americans endured in slavery. He seems quite aware of the Jewish holocaust, referring to monuments and observances dedicated to never forgetting that human tragedy. But how many such monuments and museums exist in honor of African people treated as chattel? How many institutions work to ensure there is a deep, abiding recollection of those centuries of torture? Not many. Kemper certainly doesn’t mention many. Now, here’s why some of us say “how dare you?” Without demonstrating any genuine empathy, any continuing affirmation of the humanity of African people, the comparison simply seems to lack authenticity, familiarity, and empathy. It merely sounds expedient. Those who use the argument don’t really sound like they care about black people as such, but only about exploiting the pain of black people as a political expedient.
Let me give you an illustration. Yesterday I went to a restaurant with a brother in the Lord. While there a Toby Mac song began playing on the restaurant speakers. There was something oddly familiar, yet clearly distant. The particular song seemed to be an effort at playing the blues by someone who grew up pretty affluent and problem free. There was the basic form and melody of the blues, but won’t no blues in it. The way, the how, of this comparison lacks blues for slaves and descendants of slaves. It lacks familiarity with the suffering, pays passing tribute to the humanity of slaves, and moves too quickly to the rhetorical and political comparison. It’s all too expedient and neat for an experience whose icon is a lacerated, bleeding, whipped back.
A suggestion: If you have an African American audience with whom you’re using this analogy and you have 30 minutes to win their support, spend the first 20 minutes showing your familiarity with the brutality of suffering and affirming the humanity of the sufferer before you employ the suffering and the sufferer in your cause. Otherwise, I’m guessing most of your audience is saying, “How dare you?!”
Second, how dare you?! Now, I don’t like ad hominems. And I don’t appreciate arguments where one person calls something “off limits” simply because another person doesn’t share their skin tone or ethnic background, etc. I’m not intending to do that here. The history of African Americans belongs to the world, and I want to encourage wider appropriation of that history by people who are not African Americans.
But having said that, the person who wants to compare abortion to slavery–especially the politically and theologically conservative white person–needs to be ready to hear a lot of people question them personally for doing so. Here’s why. You fit a type in the African American mind. You look, think, speak, and act a lot like the very folks who held slaves. Your views on some things are hauntingly and terrifyingly similar. We sometimes hear you making political arguments about other issues (take states’ rights, for example) and we think, This dude is a Dixiecrat. Now you show up and you talk about the suffering of African Americans in a way that doesn’t deeply explore that suffering or memorialize that humanity and you become very suspect.
I hesitate to use this example. I don’t want to be guilty of what I’m cautioning others against doing. But in using this illustration, I think I’ll highlight the point. My heart is to illustrate, not offend. But here goes: Your using this comparison in this drive-by way without paying attention to how African Americans view you is a lot like a rapist saying to a woman he brutalizes that she should have not worn that outfit or been in that place. The rapist’s response not only blames the victim and minimizes her suffering and trauma, it also reveals he’s too blind to see how terrible a thing it is to be a rapist. He is the problem and he doesn’t seem to know it.
My friend, the problem isn’t the comparison between slavery and abortion. The problem is a person showing up to make the comparison who doesn’t know he is being identified by his audience as “the problem.” Here’s how I tried to address this dynamic in the comments thread of the earlier post:
If a white brother uses the argument with slavery as the example with the average African American, who otherwise might be right there with them on the issue and argument, I think he’s going to be raising racial barriers, mistrust, and perceptions that actually defeat his cause. Many in that audience will likely think, “But you don’t have the moral credibility to talk to me about slavery.” And there’s the rub. You’re not actually talking about slavery; you’re talking about abortion. But injecting slavery with this audience obligates the white speaker to demonstrate a range of sensibilities and capacities on questions of race that, honestly, not many in my experience can offer at a level satisfactory to most African Americans.
If you’re going to talk about abortion in this way to Jewish and African American audiences, I suspect you might want to pay attention to how the audience views you. I suspect you’d be wise to know what associations they make between you and “your people,” a people they have historical reason to associate with their suffering, the suffering you’re now trying to turn to your advantage.
Kemper offers his description of the problem Jewish and African American audiences have with the comparison:
The problem they have is not really the fact that a comparison is being made to one of these horrific tragedies; after all, we build museums, memorials and reminders of what happened to make sure something like the Jewish Holocaust will never happen again. The problem really is that we have elevated what they consider to be a blob of tissue to personhood status.
Hmmm…. The first rule of public speaking is: Man, Know Thy Audience. Honestly, I think that paragraph shows Kemper hasn’t done what he needs to do to know his African American audience. African Americans are not against arguments that affirm personhood. Gosh! We’ve spent centuries fighting for personhood! We’d simply like our own thoroughly affirmed and appreciated before appropriated. That’s why we (at least, I) don’t like the comparison.
There’s one more element to this I’d like to highlight. When I say, “How dare you make this comparison?” I’m also identifying someone who hasn’t shown up to support a lot of other causes I care about. Not only have you not shown up to support, you really haven’t shown up to dialogue, understand, or persuade. Most of your political and social positions lie across the river from my own, and though you own a boat you’ve never tried to row across. Now you show up saying how much I ought to support your cause. And you tell me how much this cause ought to mean to me, how I ought to care about the death of black babies. You tell me this as if I don’t already care about the death of black babies. But when I talk about the death of black babies due to crime, or poverty, or drugs, or slow death from a sub-par education, you tell me that’s my problem. When you do that, you seem to care more about your political issue than you care about my black life. You need to know that’s how we see you. Your comparison reminds us of all of this.
So, yes, how dare you compare abortion to slavery?! I love you. But I’m afraid you don’t love me… at least not long enough to hear how your comparison affects me. I’m in the trenches with you–at least I want to be–but the shrapnel from your rapid fire makes it hard for me to fire with you.