What I saw in the Diag today

October 8, 2011

Political Theory

Free speech issues are never simple, especially because they are so multifaceted. In this post, I ignore the question of whether freedom of speech should be granted in a particular case. Instead, for the sake of the argument, I assume that free speech should be allowed, and I do this in order to examine a very interesting question: does free speech entail certain moral obligations in how to present opinions?

I.e., are we obligated to respect the emotions (or sensitive stomachs) of others? Are we obligated, as representatives of a particular belief, to represent it well?

P.S. The approval for this post is taking a few days, so the title is misleading; technically I saw it all in the Diag a few days ago.


What I saw in the Diag today:

Sixteen seven-foot-tall billboards, each displaying images of aborted fetuses still covered in blood. There was also text likening abortion to the Holocaust (complete with swastikas). They were arranged in a way that made traffic through the Diag basically impossible, and anyone on a bike would have to get off to walk through them or take another route. As one approached the Diag, the only indication of what would be ahead was a small sign about ten feet away from the billboards that said, “Warning: Disturbing content ahead,” seen well after the billboards were fully visible.

Is it just me, or are the actions of the people who organized this completely repulsive?

Pro-choice and pro-life people can both agree that this was completely offensive. Regardless of anyone’s stance on the issue, these horrible images were completely inappropriate for a public setting, seen by thousands of people who were given no warning. The issue of abortion can be decided by reason and controlled debate. But today, reason and rationality were deliberately rejected in favor of trying to convince someone through pure emotional shock.

And don’t claim this is a form of arguing. Images of heart transplants are quite jarring as well, but no one is saying we should stop transplanting hearts. This was an attempt to bypass reason entirely and go straight to persuasion through emotional reaction. The people who organized the display cared nothing for the emotions of those who might see it, choosing instead to focus entirely on results.

What mattered to them was that they convinced people. Emotions meant nothing. Reason meant nothing. People meant nothing.

Not to mention the complete offensiveness of the few bits of information that were displayed. Likening abortion to the Holocaust is only true under the assumption that fetuses are humans, so for one to argue the former before the latter is a deliberate effort to stoke controversy and wound people. A man by the billboards stood arguing with a pro-choice Jew who was clearly offended by the idea that he would be likened to the Nazis (not to mention the various swastikas that were thrown in, once again, for emotional impact).

And opponents of abortion claim that abortion leaves women with feelings of shame and guilt. Perhaps; but do you want to know what definitely leaves women with feelings of shame and guilt? Saying they are as guilty as the Nazis for terminating their pregnancies.

Their attempt to persuade people through pure emotional impact proved successful, though not in the way they wanted. Everyone walking by—and I mean everyone—vocalized their disgust at the cruel methods used by the protestors. There were a few who said, “I can’t believe these pro-lifers,” sure. But, surprisingly, I heard far more statements that started with, “I mean, I’m not pro-choice, but…”. They “created dialogues”, all right. But the dialogues were universally about how dirty of a method this was.

Before anyone infers that I am pro-choice, I would like to make clear that the last point I want to convey to pro-lifers can and should be taken as beneficial to the pro-life movement; it is a command that, if heeded, will help the pro-life movement immeasurably:


Stop displaying pictures like this. Not because you have a moral duty to obtain people’s consent before showing them these pictures (which you do), but because you owe it to your cause. Such methods only persuade people that pro-lifers are inconsiderate, ruthless, and, indeed, nut jobs. So just stop.

Opponents of abortion need to step up and make it clear that they do not approve of this. This curse to their cause can become an opportunity if they make it clear that the actions of the protestors were radical and offensive, and that most pro-life people are compassionate and rational.

So, pro-lifers, if you want your cause to succeed, listen to me. The issue of abortion is complex, and there are a lot of people who don’t know where they stand. But all other things being equal, they are going to reject the side argued less tactfully, and currently, that’s yours.


About antuck

University of Michigan student.

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7 Comments on “What I saw in the Diag today”

  1. Steve Dougherty Says:

    > Stop displaying pictures like this. Not because you have a moral duty to obtain people’s consent before showing them these pictures (which you do), but because you owe it to your cause.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    Excellently put. I think part of the implied agreement of free speech is that people can say what they want, but others don’t necessarily have to listen. The problem with the way this setup was organized was that “the others” didn’t have much choice in the matter.

    Like many groups, this one seems to take to heart the philosophy that any discussion about their cause is beneficial to it – by using shock tactics they generate word-of-mouth. Controversy is their goal; I find myself wondering if the warning signs were put up by the group itself to raise curiosity or heighten the drama of it all.

    I found it strange for this group to lament the horrors of abortion in this incredibly gruesome way. Instead of – for instance – describing their views on why fetuses ought to be given human rights, how abortions affect people, and perhaps the procedures involved, they chose to take pieces of aborted fetuses and pose them next to coins. I agree with you that these methods do not make for compelling argument. Maybe if they had presented more of a rational case they would have left themselves open to direct counterargument. As there is very little content behind the presentation, it’s difficult to argue against something tangible.

  2. namin91 Says:

    Let me start off by saying that this display in the Diag was not one I took kindly to. I, myself am pro-choice, but putting that aside, the pro-life display was not only tasteless, but inaccurate and incorrect (politically and scientifically). While I think you have laid out a very strong argument for why this was not a very tactful way to advocate pro-life, I do think that the pro-life advocates in the Diag exercised their freedom of speech and expression in “fair terms”. I understand the argument over spectators having no say over whether or not they saw the images, which were practically unavoidable, but I do think the argument can be made that we are exposed to thousands of images everyday and we don’t make a conscious decision as to whether we want to view every single on of them or not. These ideas were simply entered into “the marketplace of ideas” and we, the public, were free to accept or reject them. I think it would be fair to say that the ideas that were put out did not prevail, but they definitely got the pro-lifers in the Diag what they wanted: attention. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much discussion generated over something in the Diag. To me, this display wasn’t about educating people or getting people to join the pro-life side. It was about garnering attention and creating a shock factor. After all, they did choose to put on this display at the notoriously liberal University of Michigan. So, while their display was disgusting, disrespectful and, frankly, stupid, I don’t think they overstepped their boundaries in terms of expressing their thoughts and ideas.

  3. Michelle Rubin Says:

    I, as well as most others who saw the images were appalled at the tactics this group was using. My stance on this freedom of speech issue, as long with other free speech issues in the diag (such as the preachers who are telling us all that we are sinners) is very simple. I support, and recognize your differing viewpoints from mine, but shoving your beliefs in my face is doing nothing to prove that your view is correct. In fact, it is making me view your point as less rational because the tactics you are utilizing to get your point across are unneeded, tasteless and somewhat appalling. However, I’d like to point out something very interesting that was set up to the side of the abortion images. There was a large piece of paper on a stand entitled, “free speech.” I believe it was being run by planned parenthood, but am not sure. It’s purpose was not to promote pro-choice, but simply to allow students voices be heard who did not agree with the display of these images for all to see. I spent about twenty minutes reading all of the responses and things that students had to say about how they didn’t appreciate the bloody display of images and harsh accusations and how they felt their were better ways for them to display their beliefs. I was so happy that this board was there and that I was able to explain how I felt about the situation in a calm and rational mannor. I thought this was such a great utilization of our freedom of speech in a circumstance where most of us were appalled and could have voiced our opinions in a more negative way.

  4. mfriedlander92 Says:

    I, personally, am not completely pro-choice nor pro-life. I am still in-between because there are so many points that go into both sides. I believe that no one has the right to tell you what you can do with your life, no one should be able to tell you that you are not allowed to have an abortion or that you have to have an abortion. It should be up to you, because it is your life and I have no right making a decision for you.

    I also understand why the pro-life group decided to come to Michigan and set up their stand. The University of Michigan is generally a more liberal campus, which means most people would more likely me pro-choice. When people are trying to convince them of their beliefs they are not going to go to a private institution where most people are already in accordance with their beliefs, they are going to go a community where most people disagree with them, so they can convince them to switch.

    Coming from Catholic schooling K-12, I understand what these types of groups are trying to accomplish, but having my father and his whole side of the family be Jewish, I completely understand how it was not just offensive, but the Jewish community felt a personal attack. The pro-life group was most likely trying to get the Jews to agree with them that abortion is an awful thing by comparing it to something awful that they can relate too. However, this was not the way to do it.

    There was NO reason for them to consider abortion to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was considered genocide- trying to get rid of a whole race. While abortion is not trying to get rid of babies in general. It has no comparison whatsoever. It is also very inappropriate to publicize these pictures in such a way. The pro-life group does have the right to freedom of expression, but they went about it in a completely wrong way. No one wants to see these gruesome images while they go to class. No one wants to be harassed by people pushing their beliefs on you.

    I am not in any way supporting what this pro-life group was doing, but I feel like they would have not caused such a controversy (which in turn, turned more people off from their beliefs) if they would have had an organized speech in Rackham, opposed to a public scene in the diag. Also the group has a right to free-speech but they should make sure that they are not offending anyone, which did not happen in this case. Even if people are pro-life, they were disgusted in how this group was portraying their beliefs. Respect is something this group lacked in their expression of their beliefs and a major reason to why people were so upset with them.

  5. matthewlocascio Says:

    This post hit the nail on the head, saying the pro-life movement in the Diag last week was extremely offensive. The last thing anybody wants to see walking to class in the morning are gigantic pictures of aborted fetuses. What exactly is your message? To show how disgusting abortion is? The post refers to the emotional influence of the display; I don’t think that people said “I am now pro-choice” or that they agree with pro-choice because of what they saw. The feeling most people had, and what most were thinking, including myself, was that it was disgusting, offensive and not something I want to be seeing in the morning. The display was intended to reach the emotional aspect of pro-life views, but just pushed many people away. Some of my friends wouldn’t even look, so this intended effect actually had no effect, but may have even hurt the pro-life argument.

    Pro-life or pro-choice is a personal decision, and should not be forced upon anyone. At the same time, everyone is entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, as outlined by the Bill of Rights. I don’t believe freedom of speech and expression should ever be limited, but on the basis of content. However, I think the context and way in which speech is expressed should be limited. We have all seen this idea from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” In lecture we also discussed that it can be argued that speech should be limited if it is valueless, offensive, purely false, “stupid,” expresses contempt, or even racist. In this case, the display is false in comparing genocide to abortion, expresses contempt making pro-choice women feel like Nazis and purely offensive. I would like to argue that the display in the Diag should have been censored due to the way in which it was executed.

    I know it is a very difficult situation for the University to shut down a form of expression, due to the nature of the display, but should have protected the rights of viewers who were offended. If the manner of the display was changed to a less tactful perspective, we would not need to debate this.

  6. leannaprairie Says:

    This is an amazing post, and extremely well argued. Bravo!

    The display in the Diag brought about a lot of conversation amongst me and my housemates. I live in a house of 5 girls (including myself) and it was very interesting to learn that we have both pro-lifers, and pro-choicers under one roof. The girls I live with are all very smart, and none of us are one to judge, so we were able to have some very intellectual conversations about this topic without offending each other or taking anything personally (a veritable marketplace of ideas).

    I was pleasantly surprised to hear that even the pro-life girls were offended by the displays in the Diag. They all believed that the displays were classless and unnecessary, and that such a controversial presentation would ultimately be detrimental to their cause’s argument. We may not all have agreed on the actual issue, but we were all able to talk about our views in an open forum, without shoving graphic images down each other’s throats, or likening abortion to genocide. Students for Life would have done well to present their views in a similar way.

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