WARNING Disturbing Images Ahead

October 9, 2011

Political Theory


The poster is from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. It was displayed in the Diag on 10/03/11. The women to the right of the poster holds a sign that says "Citation needed."

On Monday, October 3rd 2011, I walked out of my Spanish class and through the diag to the UGLI.  Just feet away from this huge display encircling the entire center of the diag, was a sign that read: “WARNING Disturbing Images Ahead.”  Seeing the life-sized pictures of baby fetuses and mass genocides directly behind the sign as I read it, this warning came a little too late.

In case you cannot read the writing from this picture, the sign in front of the anti-abortion display reads:

“Genocide Awareness Project- Genocide: The deliberate and systematic destruction of a national, racial, religious, political, cultural, ethnic, or other group defined by the exterminators as undesirable (emphasis added).  (Webster’s New Encyclopedia, 1992).  With abortion, the ‘other group’ being exterminated is unwanted, unborn babies.”

The girl sitting to the right of the display is a student holding a sign which reads “[citation needed].”

And in chalk, on the ground in front of this display is written “PRO-CHOICE AND PROUD.”  Similar messages are written around the entire display.

My initial reaction, which may be different from yours, was shock and disgust.  I have peacefully walked through the diag every day since coming to the University of Michigan and though I have seen many demonstrations none have affected me like this one.  How could these people have the right to display such gruesome pictures with such offensive claims?  How does this not cause harm to someone such as myself, or the various other students walking through the diag?

John Stuart Mill argues that an already unpopular opinion, such as an anti-abortion group on Michigan’s generally liberal campus, tends to have “studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate….” in order for their expression of opinion to be tolerated among society.  Therefore, Mill concludes that the harm principle is not a reason to silence the expression of opinion.  I disagree with this; if I had any weaker of a stomach I could have easily lost my breakfast at the sight of those pictures.  If I had had an abortion or was close to someone who has had an abortion I would be angry at the claims these people were making and offended that they could declare abortion a form of genocide.  It would be hurtful for me to have to walk past those disturbing images; it would bring back painful memories and definitely make it hard to concentrate throughout my day.  Is this not harmful?  Are the huge disturbing images of genocides and aborted babies really a form of “moderated language and cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence”?  I do not think that they are.  Did this demonstration not prove harmful to the innocent people walking by, naïve to what they will soon encounter?  I believe it did.

As I went back to take pictures and study the display to write this post my opinions on the topic began to alter.  Regardless of your opinion, consider how your response to this display would be different if you grew up in a family who held the opposite view.  I am pro-choice, however, after asking myself this question I realized that it would be hard for me to understand the pro-choice side if I had grown up taught that pro-choice results in genocide and the loss of innocent lives.  This made me wonder, do we immediately attack demonstrations when the opinions being expressed are different from our own?  Would I be in support of an equally disturbing demonstration if I were in agreement with the opinion being expressed?  I think that perhaps I would.  Was it not the effect those images had that actually conveyed the severity of their beliefs?  I argue that it was.

Seeing the demonstration in the diag reminded me of why I was pro-choice and reaffirmed my beliefs.  This is exactly why Mill argues the expression of a potentially wrong opinion can be a good thing.  Mill says, “even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is… vigorously and earnestly contested, it will… be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”  I have always been pro-choice but this belief is not part of my day-to-day life.  Seeing a demonstration that questioned my beliefs brought the issue to the front of my attention.  I still look at the pictures in this demonstration and think they’re horrible but I am confident in my belief that an abortion can be what is necessary for the mother, can be what is best for a family, and more importantly, that it is never the governments place to make a decision about your body regardless.

For me this demonstration brought up many questions, all of which I cannot address in this post.  But to consider a few, do we immediately attack demonstrations when the opinions being expressed are different from our own?  How do the arguments of John Stuart Mill change the way we discuss this situation?  Lastly, is a display such as the one depicted above really considered a form of protected expression?  Should it be?

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6 Comments on “WARNING Disturbing Images Ahead”

  1. madisonkraus Says:

    I had heard about the events in the diag before I walked through it, but even knowing about it didn’t prepare me for what I saw. The demonstration in the diag was not what I would expect of a typical pro-life demonstration. The posters were gruesome and made absurd claims. As a pro-choice person, I would never find myself supporting a pro-life rally. However, if it was a respectful demonstration supporting their views, I would walk by peacefully and would not be offended at all by their protest.

    However, this was not an ordinary protest. The demonstrators were comparing abortion to the genocide that occurred in the holocaust. As a Jewish person, I found it extremely offensive that they would use such a terrible event in our religion’s history to justify their cause. I’m sure that there are many people at our school whose families were personally persecuted in the holocaust. To portray images of Jewish dead bodies in a pile in the middle of our campus was absurd. They also had an image of an African American man hanging, as if to compare abortion to racist crimes committed before the civil rights movement. At a campus like Michigan, where we have both religious and racial diversity, both of these comparisons were shockingly insensitive and distasteful.

    I would never claim that someone shouldn’t be allowed to make a protest just because I didn’t agree with their opinions. The right to expression and assembly is one of the factors that make our nation so strong. However, at the same time, I feel that the diag protest last week was incredibly inappropriate. I don’t feel that they accomplished anything other than offending a majority of students on campus. Even my friends who are pro-life and against abortion were extremely turned off by the demonstration. They felt that the demonstrators used ineffective means to support a cause that they felt passionately about. I don’t believe that any cause should be prohibited from the diag, however the images and words used to defend such causes should be subject to some standard if they are going to offend a majority of students at an institution we pay to attend. It’s not a matter of what they were protesting that was offensive, but rather the manner they went about doing it that caused such an uproar.

  2. Matthew Bernstein Says:

    The author of this post addresses an extremely important issue in today’s world: Do people who have strong disagreements with a certain belief feel the way they do because they are unaware of the other side of the argument? I personally had a similar reaction to the display in the middle of the Diag as the author. I was shocked and disturbed that the images on display were so graphic. Yes, the First Amendment grants freedom of expression…but to what extent?

    Personally, the strongest impact this post had was asking the question “do we immediately attack demonstrations when the opinions being expressed are different from our own?” It is human nature for one finding it hard to accept that he/she is wrong. It is even harder when the discussion is about something as important and controversial as abortion. I am pro-choice, as I feel it is up to the woman to decide whether or not she wants to keep her baby. Unfortunately, there are extreme circumstances where fetuses are selectively aborted (based on things such as gender [as discussed in an earlier post]). However, these extreme cases, which are rare, should not force innocent young women to be forced into motherhood after being raped and impregnated.

    Despite all of the negative cultural and religious impacts that the debates about abortion have, a display as graphic as the one in the Diag the other day should not be a method used to try and sway the pro-choice faction to the other side of the discussion.

  3. adamstillman2011 Says:

    My opinion on this issue is two pronged. Personally I disagree with the content of the display. To insinuate that abortion of a fetus is comparable to the holocaust, in my opinion, is outrageous. I also think that the images were incredibly disturbing. From a protesting or marketing standpoint I found this to be a very ineffective way of promoting a cause. I am pro choice, so I was going to disagree with the displays no matter what they had said; however, I talked to some friends who were pro life and they also believed that this campaign was over the top, and not portraying the right message. Upon seeing these displays I didn’t find myself angry at the pro life cause. I found myself to be angry at these specific people for the way they portrayed their message.

    Even though I strongly disagree with the message, and the way it was delivered, I do believe that this group had the right to make these protests. This is secured to us in the first amendment. I believe if the government began censoring speech because they thought it was disturbing, issues would arise about where to draw the line, and it could get very political and dicey. Mill would also agree that expression of their opnions should be allowed.

    This display was disturbing, but in the end the group did nothing illegal.

  4. zschmitt17 Says:

    The first day that this was in the diag I paid no attention to it. I didn’t look at the pictures and didn’t even know what it was about. Then in Polsci lecture the next day it was brought up. I left the lecture and headed through the diag eager to find out what it was about. This time I opened my eyes and looked. My mood instantly turned sour, the images were horrible, and I was deeply offended by it. I saw one woman, who couldn’t be over 25, walking away from the fenced area yelling and giving a person “the bird”.

    I, myself am pro-choice and actually get my position from my religion. I have never had to go through an abortion and do not know anyone that has. I actually am not to worried about if it is legal or not. But the graphic display in such a popular area is uncalled for.

    I do not think that this is a question about their right to express their opinions. They had every right to set up there. But it is a question of whether they actually wanted people to listen to what they had to say. In order for people to listen to your views you have to approach it gently. You can’t shove everything you believe in the faces and expect them to come over to your side. Seeing this display could have been an emotional attack on many people that have had abortions. One sign that a guy was holding up, said something along the lines of this
    “If you do not allow abortions then what are we going to eat?” signed The Atheists.
    It was a blantant disregard for other human beings.

    If they wanted to give this display without causing such a problem, then they should have advertised it around campus and have it in a less traffic area. Then if people wanted to see it they could go to it, instead of having anyone that walks through the diag see it (which is argueably 90% of campus). In my opinion they just made themselves look bad, and drove more people farther away from pro-life than they brought to it.

  5. emmaschneider11 Says:

    While I did not agree with the way the protestors made their argument, I do think they had a right to be there. I feel it is utterly wrong to compare abortion to the holocaust, racial killings or the slayings of young children in third world countries. Reasons behind abortions vary but it is incorrect and cruel to imply that the reasons are the same as in a situation of genocide. That being said, the protestors were within their rights to be there.

    Mill argued for freedom of expression, especially for minority groups. He also argued that is an idea was not discussed it would become taken for granted and lose meaning. I believe Mill would support this protest not only because the protestors had the right to freedom of expression but they were also in a way (even though it seems wrong) aiding society through creating discussion. Whether you liked the protest or not you were talking about it. We are discussing it on this blog right now. This subject will certainly not become a “dead dogma” because people continue to do outrageous things and other people continue to talk about it.

    The protestors have the right to put up those images on the diag because their freedom of speech is protected by the first amendment. And observers have the right to detest what they say. And we all have the right to talk about it because we have freedom of expression. I think voicing an opinion, even it if may be offensive or harsh, is better than holding it in for fear of what others may say or think. I also think discussing those opinions is even better.

  6. maddycaroline Says:

    The images in question were not up for just one day, but two as well as their being trucks with even bigger versions of the images driving all around campus. Even if someone wanted to avoid them by not walking through the diag, there still was the possibility that one of the many trucks would drive past them on the street so basically seeing the protest was unavoidable (unless you got extremely lucky). By law, they had the right to be there expressing their opinion on the issue, however I do not believe that the way they were expressing it was in any way right.

    The holocaust and genocide in places such as Sudan are in no relation to a woman’s right get an abortion, and trying to compare them is extremely offensive to those who know someone who went through either experience, or went through it themselves. While, yes, John Stuart Mill does argues that everyone should be able to express their opinion no matter how offensive, he also does say that the manner in which it is done cannot be as so. The protesters had their right to be there expressing their views on abortion, yet they should not have done so in the way they did. As I have seem someone mention, the way in which they presented their argument probably drove away many people, and just aided the stereotype of pro-life people as being crazed.

    I, myself, am pro-choice but I can usually see why the other side thinks the way they do and respect them enough for their opinions, but in this case I couldn’t think of anything but disgust. If pro-life protesters really want other people, and especially women, to join their cause then they cannot relate their side of the fight to issues that are much more important in the world, such as genocide, because the issue of genocide and the issue of abortion are in no way comparable. Protesters from either side should be able to give reasons such as “its a woman’s own decision what to do” (for pro-choice) or “god says its wrong” (for pro-life) but no matter what side, the way in which the argument is presented has to be appropriate for the context and for what it is trying to get across.

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