Threats and outrage can no more shut up ideas than a cage made of smoke. It’s time we stop using violent tactics, as ways to voice our disagreements.
In case you are unaware, I’ve been focusing a lot on an article by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, called ‘After-birth abortion’. You can read my summary of the situation here, which includes links to further reading. I’m focused on it not even for the very powerful and controversial arguments, but in order to defend people who are working in the field of bioethics (which I’m studying).
Basically, their argument tests the assumption of our acceptance of legalised abortion and asks why we don’t apply such justifications for infanticide: thus, if it could be shown that the foetuses are no different to infants, it surely means we can kill newborns for the same nonmedical reasons that we kill foetuses. I’ve had little trouble accepting the reasoning behind this, but, of course, their idea and article was met with outrage – but outrage that has gone too far.
You can’t find the article on the Journal of Medical Ethics website downloadable for free anymore. But, despite some people thinking this is some kind of victory, the article is still on the site for members – even having it’s own mini-section dedicated to reasonable (but, I think, mistaken) responses on the homepage.
Threatening Those We Disagree With
I've never understood threats, in general, or, worse, online threats. As a tactic, I think I could possibly only threaten someone who has deeply/physically hurt or insulted me or someone close (and this would not be a reasonable thing to do; I'd hope good friends would stop me). And even there, threats seem to be themselves insulting ways to respond to a person who has truly hurt you or someone you love.
To use such a tactic on a complete stranger who has merely expressed an idea you find repugnant is something I find bizarre, if not horrible and indicative of Dark Age thinking; it is to give in to a mob mentality, a torch-wielding, psychopathic, mass of outrage that demands blood, apology, and an integration of how the majority view subjects. Ideas which upset us are called horrible, disgusting, unnatural, bizarre, stupid – but what matters is not your repugnance, but your reason. What good reasons do you have for opposing the idea that repulses you? Who cares if you are offended or feel disgusted: people feel disgusted and repulsed by gay marriage and contraception. Does it make it right to oppose them? Of course not. We require reasons if we are to take each other seriously, rather than giving in to what happens to be the status quo or what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of majority”.
Those donning the crown of outrage proclaim themselves monarchs of morality. Their rusty thrones are toppling due to their own inability to articulate exactly why they are outraged, aside from mere repugnance. Yet, what matters for those interested in unpacking our ideas for their logical coherence is whether or not our ideas are made of fairy-dust or something more foundational, such as logic and reason. Simply because an idea makes you feel safe, aligning with your heart and happiness, tying together a social connection to others who feel the same way, does not make your idea true: it only means it makes you more secure. But security is no guarantee of veracity. Just because you feel safe does not make your ideas true.
History teaches us and reminds us: here in South Africa, less than three decades ago, the idea that black people were inferior to whites was justified in law. Many people from different races believed this to be true; children were raised on this idea, both black and white. Yet who now thinks this makes it a valid idea? It’s simply not true that blacks are inferior to whites and no one today can make a serious claim for this. The same goes for women’s equality, slavery, gay marriage, contraception, abortion. Advances in science, whether the heliocentric world-view or the evidence indicating our shared ancestry with daffodils, was also repugnant, outrageous, bizarre. But it remains true.
Outrage Equals Moral Highground
It’s only because (probably otherwise reasonable) people really believe they’re right, on the verge of certitude, that they can proudly threaten Giubilini and Minerva publicly and viciously. Few other things could drive someone to write proudly, on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website: “More than one blogger has claimed that Guibilini and Minerva should be exterminated. I was just the most prominent and the only one to provide their pictures and addresses.” Why addresses if he didn't wish violence or harm?
The same bizarre, hysterical commenter also says about Prof. Savulescu’s defence: “This Savulescu filth should be exterminated alongside the two infanticidal scum its defending. Bullet, bomb, or "play time" with some knives, any means is acceptable as long as the three of them die.” [sic]
More choice comments include ones like this: “To kill the authors of this completely out of mind stupidity should be a profilactic act to protect humanity against this intelectual criminals that for sure forgot Hipocrates Juramentum” [sic].
Another incredible comment indicates s/he sent a threat to the authors:
I'm one of those who sent an abusive e-mail. You deserved it. I have no intention of apologizing for it. If I were a forgiving person -- which I'm not -- I might have taken your paper as a poorly written, modern-day Modest Proposal.
Read your abstract. There's no hint as to what the purpose of the paper is, nor is there a clue in body of the paper itself. Making what you were up to pellucid and making the position you were taking clear were your responsibilities, no one else's. You get an F. That's an F as in Failure, Failure with a capital F.
Regardless of what you say to the contrary now, it's difficult to see your paper as anything other than an argument favoring -- nay, even promoting infanticide -- er, umm, "after-birth abortion."
The two of you jointly share my Twit of the Year Award.
Only this certainty can make someone list pictures and email addresses of Francesca Minerva and editor Julian Savulescu – who himself does not support infanticide, only the right of Giubilini and Minerva to write basically whatever they want. What’s the point of putting their addresses on your blog, unless you want your readers to send them emails? And these are not emails that will be rational or reasonable, but filled with the emotive nonsense that fills the blogpost itself.
What’s the Point?
What do people hope to achieve with these hysterical threats? Let’s go through two options.
(1) The ideas will be shut down and no one will know about it.
That is plainly not going to happen, given the enormous press the article has received – indeed, mostly from people who were outraged by it. The Streisand Effect then prevents this from being a goal.
But, more importantly, it should not and should never be a goal for us to shut people up for merely expressing an idea. I’m uncertain about when ideas become dangerous, since I don’t think ideas are themselves dangerous, but we can reasonably decide who should know what information and when. For example, it is perhaps a bad idea to allow unrestricted access to research into chemical warfare and bomb-making. But to clamp down on the idea for everyone seems self-defeating: if there is a bomb, how will we know how to diffuse it unless we’ve worked with it before in a safe environment? Similarly, if people are discussing the ethics of killing newborns, why would you not want it to be held within an academic journal? Why would you not want to see the idea presented in its clearest, least hysterical form so that you can, also, reasonably defeat it? If someone merely expressed that their “feelings” led them to believe infanticide was always good, there’s no argument to be had; just as there’s no argument to be had with those merely expressing their repugnance (which hardly anyone should actually care about)
(2) We’ll stop them killing babies.
Anyone who has read the paper knows that Giubilini and Minerva do not advocate mindless child murder. They are posing the killing of infants for the same reasons people propose the killing of foetuses. Hardly anyone who goes through an abortion does so lightly, or without emotion. No one would commit to killing a possible child without taking serious consideration for their and the child's well-being and their own ability to look after a child. In the end, whether the reasons are selfish or not, the ordeal is usually horrific for women to go through. But it still occurs and has been beneficial: there’s no reason to say this will be any different for post-birth abortion, since the reasoning could be the same. It’s still hard, difficult and awful, but that doesn’t make the act wrong.
Giubilini and Minerva are, as I said, asking what the difference is between abortion and post-birth abortion. Until someone offers a reasonable reply, there’s little reason to doubt their argument. Does this mean it should be law? No. Does it mean it should be policy? Probably not. What it does mean is that we need to reassess our assumptions regarding our views on abortion: strangely, I’ve noticed that those who are pro-life have accepted the implications of this article, since they’ve been proclaiming it for some time. Good for them. They don’t agree, of course, but they’ve accepted the moral consistency of what happens if you accept the morality of abortion.
It’s unlikely that one paper or two people will overturn the policy on killing newborns in hospitals. But anyone who doubts that newborns have been killed for decades or without good reasons needs to do more reading into the history and current practice of medicine.
But, even if it was policy: it would only really apply to those who want/need to kill their newborns, just as abortion only really applies to those who want/need abortions (I realise this is a slight simplification). Would we not want death occurring in places where it can be done painlessly and without complications, like hospitals? There are already laws against murdering infants and people, but laws do not stop us. The many newstories of babies being found in dumpsters - which happens nearly everyday in South Africa, for example - surely can't be better than allowing these same babies to die painlessly, in a safe environment? Again, just because I'm saying killing babies in hospitals is better than mothers forcing the babies to starve to death in filthy dumpsters, does not mean we ought to legalise post-birth abortion; but it does attempt to set our priorities straight. Furthermore, if the newborn is painlessly killed in a hospital, the organs of the infant could be used to save even more lives, such as of those children whose parents do want them.
Everything being equal, then, no one is forcing you to have an abortion, marry someone of the same sex, or smoke a cigarette. Why then the hysteria on post-birth abortion? It seems to me even if we take this to the extreme of actual policy – which will probably never happen – there seems nothing particularly wrong with it.
Indeed, that most people, including those in the medical field, are outraged by it, is a good thing for those who disagree with Giubilini and Minerva: it means most people will not want it, even if it were legal. But that’s no reason to presume you know best for others, as people who claim abortion’s immorality do for women who abort. Newborns aren’t persons and don’t deserve the same rights as fully-formed rational persons. I don’t know what age we should accord rights, but I can see no reason to grant it when the baby first breathes by itself.
A Deep Concern
My worry is that such reactions will limit what researchers and academics focus on. Those of us interested in fields like biomedical ethics do ourselves and, more importantly, society no favours if we align our views to popular opinion, since the nature of our inquiries is to test the very foundation of comfort and assumptions we all have: in morality, policy and life in general. If we did simply give in to what was popular or safe, the domains of science, medicine, applied ethics and other areas would be mostly hollow, serving no function other than to parrot the view of majority opinion; and then, we don’t need anyone to do so anyway. Where would medicine be if we continually gave in to what most people thought? Where would our knowledge be if we simply promoted only ideas which left people feeling secure in how special humans are? It is not at all easy to distance yourself from popular views, but everyone loses and no one benefits if scientific inquiries became synonymous with security maintenance.
We are fallible, emotive creatures that don’t like to be wrong – but there is more to lose by defending unjustified beliefs than there is by maintaining a sense of moral security. I won’t say it’s the principle that matters, since that’s a shoddy statement, but being able to reflect and take on difficult ideas and arguments is our only protection against caging ourselves into fundamentalist mindsets.
No one is in a position of certainty except toward uncertainty. Given this, no ideas should be shut up; no one should be silenced; and threats only serve to implicate the inability of the bully to take on new ideas, arguments and views, which is precisely the close-minded mindset that leads to much suffering.
Whether you agree or not with Giubilini and Minerva’s view – or even my own – we must at least agree that threats and outrage cannot guide us toward peaceable, rational solutions. After all, there’s almost always a better way to solve the problem than violence and threats. And, by definition, there’s nothing peaceful about threats.
Addendum: As articles are slowly coming in - that is, proper responses to Giubilini and Minerva in various journals - I might revise my support for their argument. However, these posts have been more about defending their right to discuss taboo subjects and to oppose threats against them.
Image Credit: Yanik Chauvin/Shutterstock.com