The Fights You’ll Have With Unreasonable People

Image of a newspaper announcement advertising a gathering of people to protest masking requirements during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
If you only have a minute:

In this blog post, I talk about my experiences engaging in charged debates, particularly around topics like abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and gun control. I tell you about my frustration with encountering falsehoods and half-truths, but emphasize the importance of maintaining composure and presenting evidence and accurate information. I believe in the power of education, context, and organized action to create meaningful discussions and advocate for change on a larger scale.

If you have more than a minute:

When I lived in El Paso, one of my aunts used to drag us all to Sunday services at her church. And I mean services, plural. There was one service in the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning one had a “Sunday School” component that included lessons about the Christian Bible and their associated morality tales. After a while, those services became less about worship and more about intrigue. As I grew up, I started seeing how rumors were the currency of the day in that church, and who was dating whom was the game we all played. And I write “we” because I slowly got sucked into that world of intrigue shrouded in religion. But there was one event that slapped me in the face and began my exit from those circles.

At one of the services, a woman stood in front of the room after asking for time to give her “testimony.” Usually, this was a moment when a member of the church stood in the front of the room and related their literal “Come to Jesus” moment. It was done to encourage non-believers in the audience to join the church. Instead of giving her testimony, she read a poem about abortion. Written from the point of view of a fetus, the poem gave a detailed account of what — in her mind — an abortion procedure looked and felt to a fetus. It was graphic, for lack of a better term. And it ended with the soul of the fetus getting to heaven, only to be turned back around to head back to Earth for a second try. (Reincarnation is not a core belief of Christianity, if I’m not mistaken.)

People in the audience went wild over her poem, praising God and praising her for being so brave in writing it and telling it. By the end of the service, a small contingent planned a protest at a local clinic they believed was an abortion clinic. (It was a women’s care clinic that referred people for abortions at another clinic across the city.) Me? I was disgusted. There was something about her description of what she believed was an abortion that did not jive with me. I spent the better part of two days the following week in the library, looking up all the evidence for and against abortion procedures, including ethical considerations. As it turns out, the poem was less than honest… And it made me wonder why someone professing to be so religious would rely on lies? But I gave her the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to misunderstanding of anatomy and physiology, and biology, neurology, and physics.

Later on, once I was in college, I fancied a girl who invited me to a young adult Bible study group. Once more, the topic of abortion came up, and I was left dumbfounded once more when one of their leaders suggested we lie and tell women that abortions led to higher rates of cancer and depression. (This is a known ploy by anti-abortion activists.) “Does it?” I asked. ”Well, the scientists will tell you it doesn’t,” the dude said. “But you can see how losing a child will cause you to be sad and cause your body to rebel against you.” ”So my aunt, who died from breast and uterine cancer… She had an abortion?” I asked. ”Not necessarily, but she did something to make her body do that to her,” he said. He added a smirk, which almost sent me into a rage. ”Yeah, I can see how genes written when an egg and a sperm fuse together predict how you’ll treat your body,” I said. “Thing is, I’m studying a shit-ton of biology and other sciences, and you’re lying.”

I was never invited back. And just as well. Some people can’t be reasoned with.

Years later, once I had my master of public health degree, I traveled with my wife to Denver for one of her conferences. While she attended her talks, I walked around the downtown area and stumbled across a small group of “college students against abortion.” They were eight or nine men, and one young woman. They had a sign up with statistics on the number of 911 calls from incomplete abortions where medications were used. Their message was that even abortion pills should be banned, because women could have incomplete abortions and require medical care. Oh, I had questions… “What proportion of all women who take abortion pills have to call 911? How does that compare to uninterrupted or planned pregnancies? How does that compare to other reasons for calling 911? How does that compare to needing medical care for painkiller overdoses, car accidents, or drinking too much?” They also had the prerequisite images of products of conception to show the “horror” of an abortion. (You’ll see why this is important in a few seconds…)

Once again, I was trying to reason with people arguing with lies and half truths. This ritual would repeat itself, not just with abortion, but also with other public health and scientific arguments. Lately, the fight is over LGBTQ+ rights. There are people in the county where I live who are convinced that a “liberal” conspiracy is happening at the school system to “indoctrinate” children into “becoming” gay. At a meeting of an advisory committee, a self-identified religious man approached me and told me — among other things — that 20% of people who underwent gender transition “regretted” it. “These young women — girls! — are being told to rip off their breasts and close up their vaginas,” he said. “How can we allow that to happen to children?”

Again, either lies or an incredible misunderstanding of the evidence. The evidence tells us that less than 1% of people who undergo gender transition regret doing so, and many in that 1% regret it because of the societal consequences of doing so. They experience high levels of anger, hate, and marginalization. They express regret because they received some respect when they hid their identities in more “typical” identities. Once they were public with who they really were, the reaction was such that it caused regret. This “man of God” told me something that did not agree with the evidence, and the good side of me (the little angel on my shoulder) tells me that he doesn’t know better.

The bad side of me is not as understanding. It doesn’t stand for baloney.

Then there is the fight about guns. Somewhere along the way, the United States went from having an agreement between people and the government that the people can and would rise against a tyrant… To a murder/suicide pact where gun violence was allowed to be the number one killer of children. Like other cultural controversies, there are lies and misinformation galore, like the easy-to-say but hard-to-prove sayings like “an armed society is a police society” to fallacies like “guns in schools make schools safer.” This is not to say that gun control advocacy doesn’t have an extreme element, but that extreme element has not led to increased risk of death to children with its proposed fallacies. (I could be wrong, though.)

I participated in a meeting of a group working to reduce gun violence, and one suggestion was to publicly show images of what bullets fired from guns by people can do to the bodies of children. One of the proponents mentioned that pictures and depictions of people with cancer have deterred people from smoking. Road safety organizations frequently show crashed cars, or post a marker of where people have died, all in an attempt to persuade/dissuade the public to change their behavior. Well, that’s not for me.

It’s not for me, because it’s playing the same game that the anti-abortion activists play. They show graphic images to elicit the disgust reflex and associate it with the medical procedure. It’s health behavior 101: trigger the disgust reflex to discourage a behavior. This is why you always see people smiling when they’re going for a walk in a commercial about the benefits of exercise for obesity, but they’re dying from cancer in a commercial about the dangers of smoking. In the case of gun violence, most people are likely not to shoot children with military-level weaponry. (Just like the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to have an abortion procedure, but some must because of life circumstances. Or how most people don’t want to die of cancer, but some became dependent on nicotine at an early age.)

There are many other avenues to get politicians to change laws to prevent people at high risk of violence from accessing firearms. Violent imagery will not do the job, in my opinion. What will? People organizing in enough size and intensity that the elected change their mind or face losing an election. And how do we organize people in enough size and intensity? We put the problem in context, inform them of the risk, and work with organizations to mobilize the voters. It has happened before, and it will happen again… I hope.

In the meantime, I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with charged subjects in public without getting too emotional about them. My whole life, I’ve been passionate about subjects near and dear to me, and my reactions have gotten me into trouble for time to time. (Not legal trouble, because there are some lines I won’t cross… As per above.)

Navigating the realm of charged subjects and engaging in debates has been challenging at times. From my early experiences in the church — witnessing the manipulation of emotions through distorted narratives about abortion — to encounters with individuals spreading misinformation on topics like LGBTQ+ rights and gun control, I’ve come to realize that reasoning with those who rely on lies and half-truths is an exercise in futility. It’s disheartening to see how facts and evidence can be twisted or ignored to support personal beliefs or agendas. But I’ve also learned the importance of maintaining composure and finding effective ways to address these issues… Even when it’s hard to do.

Instead of resorting to the same tactics used by those I disagree with, such as presenting graphic imagery or triggering emotional responses, I believe in the power of education, context, and organized action. By presenting the evidence, providing accurate information, and putting problems into perspective, we can create a foundation for meaningful discussions and informed decision-making. Mobilizing voters, working with organizations, and advocating for change on a larger scale can lead to tangible progress.

It is essential for anyone engaging in these debates to temper our emotions and approach the discussions with rationality and empathy. While it can be frustrating to encounter falsehoods or misconceptions, maintaining a level-headed demeanor will allow our arguments to carry more weight and credibility. It’s a challenging balance to strike, but it’s crucial to foster productive conversations that can lead to positive change.

Moving forward, I’m committed to honing my skills in addressing contentious subjects without allowing my emotions to overshadow the facts. By doing so, I hope to contribute to a more informed, respectful, and evidence-based discourse in society. It’s a continuous learning process, but one that I believe is vital for progress and understanding in a world where strong subjects often dominate public discourse.

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