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.