Here’s a story, one that, like any good story, has a solid plot, good tension, heroes, and villains.
In this case the villain is the Texas state legislature, limned in caricature by Representative Jodie Laubenberg, a theocratically conservative, middle-aged woman from District 89. Rep. Laubenberg, an apparently not very bright betrayer of her gender, made some insane comments during the debate over an incredibly strong anti-abortion bill, one that, if passed would result in the shutdown of most Texas clinics where abortions are currently performed. Those clinics, however, also provide thousands and thousands of life-saving services for women (the majority of whom need these low-cost or free options), including screenings for numerous cancers, neo-natal services, and contraception. As a result of the bill (subsequently passed and then signed into law by Governor and co-villain Rick Perry), thousands will die. The blood of these thousands, so the story goes, is on the hands of these villains. The heroes of the story are all those fighting the good fight, whether through protest or press or petition, all of whom are determined to make the rest of the country see just how evil and harmful and criminal such actions are.
Does that sound like the story you’ve heard? Well, here’s another, also with all the right narrative elements.
In this story, Representative Laubenberg (a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin) and her colleagues, acting out of deep moral conviction and a belief that abortion is the taking of a human life, pushed as hard as they could to save as many of those lives as possible. Having run unopposed in her district, and having been very clear when she ran what her conservative positions were and are, Laubenberg is confident that she is fully representing her constituents as they would want. Recognizing, however, that an outright ban of abortion would be unconstitutional, the legislature presented instead a bill that would work within the limits of constitutionality, yet still save vast numbers of the unborn by limiting the ways and places in which such murders could take place. She realizes that some lives will potentially be harmed through the closing of these clinics, but the few thousands of adult women who might suffer pales when compared to the tens of thousands of unborn children who will be saved. It is in no way a perfect solution, but she is confident that she and her colleagues are doing the right thing for the most innocent and helpless human beings in Texas. She rides the ridicule and the insults, the cries that she is a murderer, the excoriation from the left, and stands tall in her beliefs, becoming a hero to many.
And here’s one more, one I’m guessing you haven’t heard, but that is just as legitimate nonetheless.
Facing the closing of the majority of their clinics in the state of Texas, Planned Parenthood plans their strategy. Realizing that appearing as the victim in any narrative is the surest path to emotionally driven support, they continue to bang the drum over the War on Women, the harm done to the poor and indigent, the many who will die because all of their other services will disappear. No more cervical screenings or mammograms; no more well-baby services. Just a locked door and a “Closed” sign. They could, perhaps, take another route, one that fights within the law while continuing to serve as many people as possible. They could, for example, agree to suspend performing abortion services while they work to wend one or more lawsuits through the courts. By doing so, those thousands and thousands of screenings and exams could continue, those thousands and thousands of early detections could save those thousands and thousands of lives. But if they took that route they might be seen as abandoning both their principles and their narrative; with neither they might risk their story falling off the national radar, their protesting supporters inevitably moving on to other causes. So that’s not the road they travel. Planned Parenthood chooses not to think first about the lives they might save; those seem auxiliary somehow next to the greater good, the more important fight that needs fighting.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes:
We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
She’s right, and to prove it you only need to think about your own beliefs, about which story you’ve heard and which you support.
What so many miss is, for me, what’s really important: It’s not about which story you believe, but about which story you are willing to respect in others. All of the stories above have their points; all, in some ways, are true, are fact. Yet at the same time all are biased and none are completely right. They never will be. Nor will the various stories we tell ourselves in order to live in a world with drones and spying and racism and poverty.
But when we refuse to understand that other people are invested in their stories, when we choose insult and invective over basic human respect, when our method of activism is to rally our own supporters in an effort to defeat rather than to engage, then we’ve lost. The activism is gone, replaced by mob behavior, and instead of working to heal, we’ve only increased the divisions that hurt us all so badly in the first place.
Civility and respect aren’t easy. Stealing a line from Aaron Sorkin, I have to tell you that “you gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.” Ignoring or belittling other people’s stories simply doesn’t meet the criteria. Neither does holding back from insulting others while mentally discarding their opinions. These are surface scans, and avoid the deeper issues of how we can really talk to each other even when we so fundamentally disagree.
This seems the only real question to me. We’ll never all agree on abortion or race or poverty or foreign policy or American exceptionalism, or any of the dozens of other issues that routinely separate us. Nor will anyone ever win. This isn’t supposed to be a place of winning and losing—at least I didn’t think so. What we can and must agree on is that there are always multiple stories, and many of them are real, fact-based, and important. Mine isn’t the best, and neither is yours. But if we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then it is also true that we must respect the stories of others in order to let them live, too.