I spent the weekend of August 24th speaking and mentoring at a seminar in Visalia, CA, then at two days of pro-life outreach at College of the Sequoias. I am a mentor and speaker through Right to Life of Central California's (RLCC) Justice For All (JFA) program. RLCC is the organization that holds the seminars and puts together the outreach. RLCC and JFA decry abortion-related violence in any form, be it against the unborn, against pro-life or pro-choice people, abortionists, abortion clinics, etc. Everyone who is out at the outreach signs a form that states that they denounce all forms of violence in the abortion issue.
We believe that the best way to change hearts and minds on the issue is to treat the other person with respect, and to have good conversations with them. We teach that there are three essential skills to any conversation: Listen to understand, ask questions, and find common ground (without compromise).
I'd like to briefly tell a story that underscores the importance of the three essential skills for a conversation. Names of non-JFA volunteers have been changed to protect identities. Language warning, though the offensive word has been censored.
I was standing by our poll table, which just asks a simple question: "Should abortion remain legal?" Someone can sign their name on the "yes" or "no" side, and give a reason. Before they leave we like to engage them in conversation to get a more specific idea of their views. I started talking to a pro-choice Libertarian whom I'll call Arthur. We were having a very good conversation. I was asking him questions about his views, listening to him and asking him to clarify his views where needed. He believes that late-term abortions are wrong, which is a point where we can find common ground. So I went from there and started asking him questions about what the relevant difference was between an early-term embryo and a late-term fetus that would justify our killing it.
After about ten minutes or so, a pro-life guy whom I'll call Dennis approached the conversation. Dennis and Arthur had both been around the JFA exhibit earlier in the day. Dennis had overheard my conversation with Arthur. It's true that Arthur was saying some things that don't sit well with pro-life people, such as that the unborn are less valuable than born human beings. I was using the essential skills that we teach at our seminar, listening to his arguments and using questions to understand his view and to see if the views that he holds are really true. But Dennis, not having had the benefit of JFA training, took it upon himself to hijack the conversation and argue with Arthur. I don't mean argue in a philosophical sense, where one presents premises and a conclusion, I'm talking about doing the things we teach not to do -- raising your voice and yelling back and forth.
At this point, I went into referee mode. I wasn't sure whether I should step in or not. It started somewhat cordial and grew in intensity as it went on. I was paying close attention to what both parties were saying to make sure that no one crossed any lines. And then it happened -- Dennis compared abortion with the Nazi Holocaust. Now I believe that there are parallels we can draw between abortion and the Holocaust, but we want to make absolutely sure that we are not giving the impression that we think that pro-choice people are like Nazis. That's not what we think at all. Now I didn't step in at this point because Dennis said, "that's just like what the Nazis did." He didn't call Arthur a Nazi, so I didn't see the need to step in. But my friend Charles was there listening in, and he told me afterward that Arthur may have perceived that Dennis was calling him a Nazi, so it was probably appropriate to step in there.
The argument went on a little further and Dennis continued to raise his level of belligerance. This is where Charles stepped in, like a boss, to start "narrating the debate." This simply means that Charles was giving his examination of what was happening so far in the discussion. Dennis wasn't listening to really anything that Arthur was saying. This certainly helped to diffuse the situation a bit, but it would get heated again.
Dennis was keeping the conversation focused on what the unborn is, but due to raising his voice and not listening, everything he was saying was lost on Arthur. He continually accused Arthur of supporting murder, which wasn't his position at all. Additionally, I'm afraid that most of what I was talking about with Arthur had been lost. But one thing was clear -- Arthur definitely noticed that there's a difference between what we do at JFA and what he feels that pro-life people usually do. After more argument from Dennis and Arthur, Arthur pointed at me and told Dennis that he enjoyed the conversation that he and I were having, and that he wasn't enjoying his conversation with Dennis.
Finally the conversation came to a head and Arthur was finished arguing with Dennis. He walked away, furious at Dennis. To make matters worse, Dennis, very sarcastically, waved at Arthur and said "have a nice day!" That was too much for Arthur. Arthur turned around and said, incredulously, "are you f---ing kidding me?!" At that point Dennis snapped. He walked up to Arthur, puffing up his chest and he was about to take a swing at Arthur. This is the point that I placed myself between Dennis and Arthur, turned Dennis around, and encouraged him to walk away. This was the first time, at any of my JFA outreaches, that I've seen a discussion on the precipice of coming to blows.
At the very least, Arthur left knowing that there are reasonable pro-life people. He said that he appreciates what JFA is doing, to come here to talk about abortion without getting in peoples' faces about it. I don't think that Dennis is a bad guy. He's obviously passionate about the pro-life issue, but he just hasn't been trained on how to present the pro-life case effectively or persuasively. But what happened next is the best part.
The next day, Dennis came back. Another JFA mentor, Sierra, talked to him. Dennis realized that he wasn't effective in his conversation with Arthur, telling Sierra that he lost his cool and that he would be interested in learning how to discuss abortion the same way that we do. Sierra invited him to our next JFA seminar which will be in Fresno two weeks later.
This is the cold-hard reality: I don't consider myself a very strong conversationalist. But you'd be amazed that just by learning the three essential skills that we teach at our seminar, your conversations will be transformed. Just by listening to them and asking questions, the people that you talk to will think that it's one of the best conversations you've ever had. If I can learn to do it, anyone can. I know that sounds cliche, but it's absolutely true.
It's because of things like this that I am very happy to support the JFA method and to give so much of my time. Justice For All is an organization that can change how people perceive the pro-life movement and pro-life people in general, in turn having been heavily influenced by Greg Koukl and the rest of the apologists at Stand to Reason who have done great work in helping pro-life people to talk about abortion more effectively and more persuasively. If you ever hear about a JFA seminar in your city or state, I think you owe it to yourself, to the pro-choice people you have in your sphere of influence, and to the unborn children that you could potentially save to go to the seminar and learn a better way to talk to pro-choice people.
The preceding post has also appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog, as well as the LifeNews blog under the title Civility in the Abortion Debate: How Not to Share the Pro-Life Message.
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