Divisive Assumptions

The most common question I get is “is it hard being in a pro-life group on such a liberal campus?” I am not proud of the way I’ve responded to this question in the past. The first time I heard it I was surprised; I hadn’t realized anyone thought this way. The question implies that there is extreme division between two parties: “Pro-Lifers” and “Liberals”. It implies that I’m in enemy territory and expects that I feel attacked, victimized even. It assumes that all people who identify as pro-life do not identify as liberal, and that all people who identify as liberal oppose pro-life ideas. It implies that I must overcome this animosity in order to fight my battle. Against… who? Them. My enemy. The “liberals”? Their “wrong ideas”? But if this is a fair evaluation of the world, where did this division come from? How could I have not been aware of it before being asked this question? I’m not proud of the way I responded. I quickly weighed what was expected of me – a report of my heroic endeavours – against the void I found when I searched myself for memories or feelings of fending off attacks. I said something of little content, “No it isn’t so bad, no one is openly angry at us.” My answer validated the question, agreed to the implications and division the question carried. Every time I’ve been asked, I have answered in this way, and I regret it. I look forward to the chance to answer this question in a way I’m proud of, yet mourn the confidence I have that I will be asked this awful question again.

I do not want to bolster division. I hate the idea of going through life sorting people into camps: “democrat” vs “republican”, “religious” vs “atheist”, “illegal immigrants” vs. “American citizens”, “good guys” vs. “bad guys”, “People-I-Trust” vs. “People-I-Don’t”, “us” vs. “them”. It’s shocking that we tend to carry “boys vs. girls” into our adult lives and actually make decisions about what we do and how we speak about our fellow humans based on these divisions we’ve created in our minds. Surely we want to promote unity, friendship, and trust,  not division, strife, and misunderstandings?

When someone says “I’m Pro-Life!” it’s tempting to assume they have all the same ideas, values, and opinions as I do. I think often people say this kind of thing to each other expecting to be welcomed into that person’s trust, as though they are revealing some wonderful coincidence of being on the same team. I won’t deny there is some value in labels such as these, since they do convey some amount of information. But of course these labels mean something slightly different to each person who uses them. If I could compare all of my ideas side by side with those of this person, I should expect huge glaring discrepancies. To me, being pro-life includes an opposition to the death penalty, but at this point in the conversation I have no information about what this person believes about that particular topic. The only way I can find out what this person believes and what this person has assumed I believe is by asking them. Were I to assume this person has one opinion or the other, I risk hurting our relationship by callously saying something they don’t agree with.

Worse is the reverse, when someone asks another “are you pro-life?” because it carries the same expectation of information. This question is often used to ask “Can I trust you?”, “Are you on my side?”, “Do you agree with me?”, “Should I treat you as a friend or an enemy?” How terrible! What an awful question!

Recently I approached a woman outside of a Planned Parenthood holding a sign which read “Stay out of my uterus!”, hoping to talk with her. I planned to start the conversation by saying “I think it’s very brave of you to be out here, standing up for something you believe in.” But as soon as I approached, she shouted at me to leave. This caught me off guard, so I didn’t leave right away. With the most anger I’ve ever felt directed toward me she shouted “Are you Pro-Choice?” several times while I stumbled for an answer. The answer to the question she had explicitly asked of course was a simple “no,” but I understood her to be asking “Are you here to attack me?” or “Do you hate me?” or “Am I right to hate you?” She wasn’t asking so that she could find out more about me as a person, she was asking to verify the prerequisite condition of being allowed to speak with her. I cried for a long time later, distressed over the pain she clearly felt and the division she imposed between us. I was never angry with her, only sad and hurt.

These divisions do not truly exist independent of our validation. There is no “us” and “them,” there are only people. We are all just people experiencing, trying, feeling, dreaming, working, hoping, living together. Let’s build each other up rather than put up walls between us. Let’s help each other discover truth rather than work to indoctrinate people with our own beliefs. Let’s unveil the fact that we all want to be good and help people rather than scold for what we see wrong in each other’s approach.

I beg you, make yourself aware of these constructed divisions and refuse to live by their bounds. Don’t approach conversations as a battle. Don’t ask questions so that you can assume which “team” your conversation partner is on. Do more than love your enemy, refuse to think of them as your enemy! Don’t simulate kindness as a conversation tactic, work to reach a place of genuine love and respect for all people, and then speak to them naturally so that your true positive and loving attitudes are allowed to show.

Written by Alicia Torres, President of Texas Students for Life