A few months ago we ended the practice of posting long opinion pieces by others verbatim. A reader and veteran journalist brought our attention to the concept of “fair usage.” That’s the principle (and law) that says it’s okay to quote bits and pieces from another writer but not to cut and paste their entire work without their permission. That makes sense and so we discontinued the practice.
But we’re going to do it once again this morning simply because this piece by New York Times contributor John McWhorter is just so damn good and because it captures perfectly the spirit we try to encourage here at YSDA.
So, with apologies to the worthy idea of fair usage, here goes.
By John McWhorter
One year, when I was a graduate student, I ate twice a day with a group of other students that included about a half-dozen Republican law students. What I learned that year informs my take on the looming overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court — assuming something close to the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, leaked to Politico, becomes final — affecting my reaction to it, despite remaining pro-choice and being, in the grand scheme of things, alarmed by the impending developments.
As an undergraduate, I had been minted under the idea — as prevalent on college campuses then as it is now — that Republicans are just wrong about most things. Then and perhaps now, there were, especially, middle-class and affluent people who sneered at and about them, even if not knowing or caring much about partisan politics.
But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense.
Mind you, none of them were talking about taking their country back, nonexistent voter fraud or conspiracy theories about the basements of pizza shops. The late-Reagan-early-Bush-41 era was different from this one. These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.
I didn’t become a Republican, but I considered my immersion in their worldview a part of my education. I’m glad fate threw me into getting to know them, and, indeed, it was part of why I felt comfortable being a Democrat working for a right-leaning think tank, the Manhattan Institute, in the aughts. A major lesson I took from those law students was to avoid a tempting, all-too-common misimpression: that if people have views different from yours, then the reason is either that they lack certain information or are simply bad people — that they’re either naifs or knaves.
This assumption hobbles a great deal of exchange on college campuses and beyond. As sociologist Ilana Redstone notes, “when we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe this as the wrongheaded view that “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
In the late 1990s, I started coming out, if you will, with my views against certain tenets of the traditional civil rights orthodoxy, such as the continuation of racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences, or the insistence that racism and economics are the only determinants of performance gaps, and that it is meaningless to discuss culture. As a result, assorted people in my orbit assumed that there must be something wrong with me.
First came the naïve part: In my grad school days, many at first thought that I must be unaware of certain truths. A concerned sociologist pointed me to books about the racial wealth gap, assuming that, after reading them, I would understand that this was the sole reason for the gap between Black and white kids in test scores and grades. A kindly administrator came by my office to explain how determined her immigrant parents had been to succeed in the United States, pushing her and her siblings “tiger mother”-style, with the goal of showing me that it was unfair to expect that kind of drive from American-born Black people. When conservative and libertarian think tanks started inviting me to speak, a friend’s spouse invited me for a beer, which turned out to be a casual teach-in, warning about the histories of some of the Republicans in the Bush 43 administration.
Then came the evil part: When I would let such people know that I was aware of what they were telling me and that my views were unchanged, they were often quietly appalled. Hence the idea out there that I and people of like opinions on race issues are just plain baddies, out for bucks and attention.
But so often, the real issue in these situations is less ignorance or ill will than differing priorities. Take the common idea that to be a Donald Trump supporter is to be, if not a racist, someone who tolerates racism. Yes, some polls reveal that Trump voters were more likely than others to harbor unfavorable views about nonwhites — a 2016 Reuters-Ipsos poll found that Trump supporters were more likely than supporters of Hillary Clinton to view Black people negatively. But the idea that anyone who’s ever pulled the lever for Trump carries the odor of bigotry is facile.
I have known too many Trump voters, of various levels of education, to whom the “racist” tag could be applied only in a hopelessly hasty fashion. Too many of them have worked for civil rights causes in the past or are married to or seriously involved with people of color or are of color themselves, for the racist label to make any real sense. They, rather, do not rank Trump’s casual bigotry as being as important as others do. To them, this trait is unfortunate and perhaps even off-putting, but not a dealbreaker in comparison to other things about him. I see nothing evil in that. It puts me off a bit. It often seems a little crude — I sense some people being swayed, purely, by Trump’s podium charisma. But that is not the same as malevolence.
I feel the same way about those who are opposed to abortion. I am disgusted that the Supreme Court seems poised to make it more difficult in many cases, and practically impossible in others, for American women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I am aware of how opposition to abortion has been entangled in the nation’s history of racism, classism and sexism. I understand the fear that the reversal of Roe could be a prelude to future decisions threatening other rights involving private life.
However, I am also aware that opposition to abortion is often founded on a basic idea that it constitutes the taking of a human life, with many seeing a fetus at even its earliest stages as a person-to-be that morality forbids us to kill. I know people of this view of all races, classes and levels of education. For them, all the negative effects of doing away with Roe may fade in importance. To them, those things are a lesser priority than preserving life.
I find the scientific aspect of this position a bit unreflective. I also sense, in many who take this view, less interest in how humans fare in their lives as children and adults than in the fate of humans as fetuses. I have to work to imagine prioritizing a fetus as a person in the way that they do.
But I think I manage it, and with a deep breath, even though it’s not where I stand, I cannot view the equation of abortion and the taking of a life — or even, as some suggest, a murder — as an immoral position. For many, including me, the priority is what a woman does with her own body. As such, many suppose that to be against abortion is to be anti-feminist. But for pro-lifers, a woman’s right even to controlling her own body stops at what they see as killing an unborn child. To many of them, being anti-abortion is quite compatible with feminism.
I deeply wish that we were not on the verge of Roe being overturned — a decision that, if it came to pass, would be opposed by a majority of Americans and would disrupt or even ruin lives. It would represent further and grievous evidence of our broken political system, with the Electoral College a keystone anachronism, having put Trump into a position to recast the Supreme Court according to priorities unshared by most of the population. However, I cannot see opposition to abortion, in itself, as either naïve or evil. As much as I wish it were not, it is a position one can hold as a knowledgeable and moral individual.