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Robert BarronMarch 08, 2010

Did you ever wonder: How does a culture change its mind? What makes an entire people repudiate a position once held with blithe certainty? The question has long intrigued me.

Two great examples of this kind of transition are the seismic shifts that occurred in the United States in regard to slavery and civil rights. In the 18th century, both in Europe and America, most decent, rational people held that slavery was defensible. Even well-educated, thoughtful commentators—relying on the arguments of Aristotle, the witness of the Bible and uncontested tradition—argued that slavery was a positive feature of civil society. And as recently as the middle of the last century, many upstanding, pious and intelligent people felt that the segregation of the races, bolstered by Jim Crow laws throughout the South and by informal customs in the North, was a legitimate social arrangement. But now, it is fair to say, only mad people would hold that slavery or segregation is good. Today these practices cause revulsion in the hearts of rational people.

But how did such changes occur?

Rational argument played a role. Regarding slavery, one need only consult the arguments offered by Fra Bartolomé de las Casas in the lecture halls of 16th-century Europe, or the speeches of William Wilberforce in 18th-century England, or the polemical writings of the 19th-century American abolitionists. And in regard to civil rights, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washing-ton and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. advanced vigorous arguments in speeches and books against the practice of segregation. But the fact that these rational arguments were in play for decades before social change occurred demonstrates that they alone were not the sufficient or even primary reason for the changes.

Other factors were clearly operative. Would slavery have become repugnant to the American conscience without the personal witness of John Brown and the songs and paintings presenting him as a romantic hero? Without the face of Dred Scott, as captured by early photographers? Without the heroism of the all-black Massachusetts 54th volunteer regiment? Without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Didn’t Lincoln himself bear witness to the power of imagination to change the course of public affairs when he greeted Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war!”

More recently, would segregation have struck the American mind as morally reprehensible without the televised scenes of black protesters knocked to the ground by water hoses and threatened by snarling police dogs? The courage of Rosa Parks? The photograph of Dr. King being pelted with rocks while marching in Chicago? Or the image of King as he lay bleeding on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis?

All these, which appealed to the imagination and the heart, had at least as much influence on the decision-making process as rational argument.

In his late-career masterpiece The Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman proposed a nuanced and textured account of the act of coming to assent. Formal inference (the Aristotelian syllogism in its various forms) played a key role but by no means the decisive one. Alongside strict argument, there was what he called “informal inference.” By this he meant that whole range of instinct, intuition, feel, hunch, half-formed argument and unconscious motivation. John Locke had opined that the quality of assent must be commensurate with the quality of the inferential support that one was able to muster for it. Newman countered that the mind simply does not work that way. Very often we give full assent to propositions for which there is no clinching argument. The reason is that the nonrational is not necessarily the irrational.

This nuanced analysis might prove helpful in our consideration of the culture’s attitude toward abortion. To be clear: I am convinced by the arguments that thoughtful people have introduced against abortion. Further-more, I am convinced that 100 years from now (sooner, I hope), only mad people will think that partial-birth abortion—to give the most extreme example—is a practice that should be protected by law.

Although we should continue to formulate arguments, these will never be enough to change the mind of the culture. In line with Newman’s principles, we must rely on various visual, visceral and imaginative means. I think, for example, that the pro-life marches on Washington for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade—at which the vast majority of participants are under the age of 30—have been extraordinarily effective at convincing the country that the future might not belong to the pro-choicers. The prevalence of ultrasound images of unborn children have made the pro-life position more persuasive to more people than have 30 years of arguments. As archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan once issued a letter on abortion in which he cogently presented the position of the Catholic Church. Along with the letter, he included a photograph of an unborn child at 20 weeks of development, as human in appearance as any newborn infant. Several times in the course of the letter, he urged the reader simply to “look at that picture.”

Two years ago, the movie “Juno” inspired a great deal of commentary, not only because it was beautifully written and acted, but because it presented a young woman who decided not to end her problem pregnancy by abortion. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Juno approaches an abortion clinic to terminate her pregnancy and runs into one of her classmates, a simple but earnest girl who is demonstrating there. As Juno brushes by, her classmate says, “Your baby has fingernails!” Once inside the somewhat squalid clinic, Juno begins to notice the fingernails of the people who surround her, and she leaves the place.

What happened to Juno through this encounter? She did not consider a new argument. Instead, she made a connection at a visual, visceral level, and her mind changed.

John Henry Newman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and “Juno,” among others, have much to teach about changing the minds of individuals and the collective mind of a culture. It takes arguments, to be sure, but it requires much more—deft and clever use of those things that appeal to the eyes, the imagination and the gut.

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14 years ago

Indeed, that one simple scene from "Juno" seemed to speak more powerfully than years of arguments by even the most impassioned defenders of the unborn (which often repel as much as they attract or persuade).  Yet, unfortunately, many would fault "Juno" for being too ambiguous or for not taking a clear stand.  But I think you affirm the important point that God speaks to us at the intersection of ambiguity and imagination (if we allow it) at least as often-if not more often-than God does at the intersection of precision and reason.  Thanks for the reminder!

Robert Davis
14 years ago

I think that the pro-abortion forces have defined the argument: it is not a child rights issue, it is a women's rights issue. Until we shift the ground, and make it a child rights issue, Roe v Wade will stand, with support by a plurality of the American public.

Edward Visel
14 years ago
It sounds like you are assuming that public opinion on abortion can only shift from pro-life to pro-choice. Most Americans are not a part of either movement, though they do have opinions on abortion and its politics, and if we look at those positions, they can be significantly more nuanced than legal-not legal.

Consider: if Roe vs. Wade was overturned (which it will not be, due to political entrenchment, despite being the worst case of legislating from the bench prior to Bush vs. Gore) - the stated aim of the pro-life movement - abortion would not be illegal. Instead, the power to regulate it would be returned to the states, the majority of whom would not ban it. This would not appease either special interest, but would reflect the opinions of citizens, particularly in the degree of regulation, from IDX to abortifacients.

The centrism shown by the majority of citizens indicates that they do not think that life begins at conception, nor that restriction of abortion is restriction of women's liberty. Rather, their gut reactions to the viable fetus and the fertilized egg terminated by IDX or abortifacients determine their opinions. These reactions are culturally conditioned, but not necessarily more easily manipulated than any other more steady moral axiom. Frankly, aggregate public opinion on abortion has not shifted significantly since the Sexual Revolution. Much greater shifts, more similar to those regarding slavery and segregation, are afoot regarding queer issues, from gay marriage to responses to intersexuality.

Work has been done on these cultural shifts under the name of "thresholding" by Stephen A. Erickson, drawing on a Heideggerian foundation.
Patrick DeLorenzo
13 years 12 months ago

There is a statistic that if a person were told they would die of heart disease unless they changed their diet and exercise seven out of ten people would choose death than change.  To change a culture, to change the way we think, to see things with a new optic takes an incredible amount of conviction.  So how would one change if faced with heart disease - you paint a picture,  "Would you like to see your children finish college? see them launch into their careers? get married? play with your grandchildren?" This is the impetus for change, when you see a world without yourself; you see what you would miss and the people who would miss you.

We have a nation and a world being seduced by convenience which is killing self control, discipline and sacrifice has been replaced with pleasure. The fruit of this behavior has been the emergence of the culture of death. Death to society, death to what is just, death to caring and compassion and it is breeding self and self destruction.

We need to paint a picture - a picture without the new Mother Teresa, the new Einstein, new Mozart, new Bishop Tutu, new Mandela. We need to paint a picture of the missing brother or sister due to abortion, the husband and wife who cannot have a child and are alone because they could not adopt and do not have grandchildren running around. The picture of cousins who do not have other cousins. We need to paint a picture of the longing and broken hearted, a picture of the grandmother who longed to hold her grandchild who did not come, a picture of a finger nail in "Juno". 

There are endless pictures one can paint and then there are realities which are so horrid, the death of a child, the death of a nation’s soul, the death of a society because we will not care for the least among us. The realities are extremely painful and bitter especially when the fullness of the action sets in. What have I done?  What have I participated in? Why do I not speak up? Why do I lack courage? What am I doing to the least of my brothers and sisters? Do I ignore their fate? What can I do? It all seems so overwhelming and out of control.

The images of hope are seeing the child who was born because one was standing outside a clinic in prayer, a person willing to take the time to counsel with compassion and love, and willing to speak about life and life more abundantly that comes from Him. The pictures of my niece who plays, laughs and brings joy to her daughter and her daughter has brought blessing upon blessing to all those in our family.

Images stopped wars, images created change in South Africa, images changed future outcomes, images are powerful and bring forth conviction.  The Berlin wall coming down, the man in Tiananmen Square standing against a tank, the images of war from Vietnam (no wonder we do not see the images from Iraq because it would change the course of war) all these images are powerful and stir up something within us.

There are numerous ways to paint the pictures and the realities are the horror we do not want to look at.  Spending time in the holocaust museum in Washington just made me depressed and sad. Why? Because of the images, the shoes, the bodies, the inhumanity of it all and ultimately what stuck in my mind was the reality.  The reality of abortion as a nation and even as the "people of God" we do not want to look at - it is to horrible, to unconscionable, to grotesque, to painful. As a nation we are not ready to look at the realities, the images but when we do then the time will come for change, because the change will come from within not from someone imposing rules and laws, but there will be a conviction that will not go away until true change occurs within the conversion of ones heart and this all happens through various images. 

The person with heart disease can change given the images placed before him/her. Without the images the person most likely will die and as a nation without images we are dying.  So whether we look at a beautiful child within the womb or we look at a horrid child killed due to abortion it is all about the images.  We are not ready to face the realities, we are not ready to look at the images, we are simply not ready for change. To look at the images is to admit our wrong as a nation and we would have to acknowledge the horror. We are simply not ready. It is to horrible to contemplate. Please take the images away. We would rather die than to change. We would rather die as a nation then to admit the wrong, it is all to painful. As a nation we have overcome adversity, we have overcome the painful realities of our history because as a nation we had the courage, the forthright and the passion to do what is right. The day we allow the images, the realities to imprint on our nations soul is the day change will occur. 

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