By Jonathon Van Maren
Over at Public Discourse, Hope Leman has an interesting essay titled “My Problem with Truth-Seeking Open-Mindedness…and Robert P. George.” In it, she makes the case that George’s call for fair-minded discussion amongst people of good will only works if there are people of good will on both sides—and that from where she’s sitting (in Oregon), there are precious few members of this species to be found on the Left.
To Leman’s credit, she says she’s tried—but that she just doesn’t find much room for discussion these days. Worse, many once-neutral spaces are being invaded by politics to the point that it is difficult to establish common ground without being challenged on some hot-button issue:
And all of us conservatives have experienced the weird habit progressives have of inserting these obsessions into settings that, until a few years ago, had been considered free of political discord. In my case, this happens most often with my fellow white women of late middle age.
Here are some examples. During an intimate physical exam in October 2020 or so, a female gynecologist told me that President Trump was going to pressure the FDA to approve an unsafe Covid-19 vaccine to help him win the election. When I praised the heroism of the police who rushed into my mother’s burning house, a female neighbor replied, “Well, we have to remember that we are white and privileged . . .” In the eye doctor’s waiting room, a retired nurse tells me that she has been riveted by the trial of Derek Chauvin. Moreover, she says proudly, her daughters have both married men of color. She speaks as if those sons-in-law are some kind of a trophy she has won at a fair and not men with individual personalities, virtues, and flaws.
I swim in a sea of progressivism and wokeism, and I can scarcely cite an interaction of recent years with a progressive that causes me to consider what Robert P. George and his fellow champions of open-mindedness want me to consider—the possibility that liberals are right, at least about some important things.
I hear what Leman is saying, and I’m conflicted. The reality is that most people simply do not have time to engage in debate or discussion with people who do not want to have a discussion in good faith, especially when there are such radically different worldviews at play and it appears that common ground has been shrinking at warp speed for years. This is one reason for polarization—it simply takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to discuss almost anything with someone who disagrees with you, especially in a climate where disagreeing with a progressive will be cast as hatred, bigotry, racism, or prejudice.
But whiile ceding Leman’s point, I don’t think we should write off George’s call for open discussion too quickly. I work as communications director for a pro-life organization that specializes in educational outreach—in other words, talking to people who disagree with us vehemently. We see people change their mind about abortion—one of the most emotionally-charged and polarizing issues in politics—almost every day. I’ve even seen people go from shouting profanity and hoisting protest signs to becoming pro-life. Sure, that’s rare. But I’ve seen it. We’ve got hundreds of testimony videos to prove it.
This is not to say that these discussions are easy. I’ve been screamed at more times than I can count. Pro-life activists do face harassment and occasionally, violence. But the reality is that our broken culture has been snapped in many places, and most of these issues are now personal to many of the people we speak with. It is impossible to discuss a controversial issue without expecting some controversy. I wish it were easier, but that is simply unrealistic. When it comes to an issue like abortion, in which lives hang in the balance, doing the hard work of finding common ground and speaking the truth in love is essential.
Part of the problem now, I think, is that people are just exhausted because everything is political and everything needs to be a fight. When there isn’t a fight to be had, there are folks who seem happy to stoke one, like Charlie Kirk calling Olympic gymnast Simone Biles a “sociopath” for stepping out of a competition and promptly triggering a Twitter war about a young girl’s mental health. That’s called being a jackass, and it’s just about targeting someone and making everyone furious for entertainment purposes. Unfortunately, the culture war mindset can, when taken to the extreme, create figures like Kirk who believe that everything must be combat all of the time. I don’t blame anyone who logs onto social media for five minutes and surveys the carnage for thinking debate is pointless.
But on many key issues, I’d argue that discussion is essential. In the case of abortion, discussions can save lives. I’ve seen it. Sharing Christianity, of course, is a biblical duty. And as polarized as everything is, people do honestly change their minds on literally life-changing issues. If we consider the question from that vantage point, how can we not?