Researchers in the Middle East recently asked citizens what it would take to bring about peace in their war-torn region. What they found might surprise you. In what many in the West might consider a “common-sense” offer, Palestinians would be asked to give up their right to return in exchange for a two-state solution and a $10 billion per year for 100 years. Yet both Israelis and Palestinians from across the political spectrum rejected these options. They would not sacrifice for peace.
But, if researchers suggested that the deal would come with an official apology from Israel, the whole picture changed. “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning,” said Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chairman of Hamas. When Benjamin Netanyahu, a hard-line former Israeli prime minister was asked whether he would consider a two-state solution if Hamas recognized the Jewish people’s right to an independent state, he replied, “OK, but the Palestinians would have to show they mean it.” The researchers, Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, concluded in their New York Times editorial in January that “making these kinds of wholly intangible symbolic concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet, the science says they may be the best way to start cutting [through] the great symbolic knot [of Palestine] that is the ‘mother of all problems.”
Imagine that: an apology. Not land, or money, or sovereignty. A symbolic act of recognition, an act that says I see you and I understand, can have more impact than “material and quality of life matters” on the possibilities for peace.
There are several things to learn from this. First, researchers did not survey the hard-line leaders. They went to the citizenry and asked them what they needed as conditions for peace. They raised the silent voices of those who are most impacted by the conflict and presented their responses to the leaders. Second, the researchers found a way to get at the heart of what is at stake, beyond the concrete and typical concerns about electricity, water, and the economy that are often the focus of negotiations. Their research clarified that for anyone involved in a conflict as long-lasting, deeply-felt and consequential as the conflict in the Middle East, the sacrifice of values and beliefs is considered unacceptable and could never lead to peace.
If you have been following my posts on how to bring peace to the abortion war here on RH Reality Check, or have read Amanda Marcotte’s critique of my theory, you probably know where I am headed. In my posts I have proposed that the voices of women who have had abortions should lead the dialogue about abortion in the United States, not the current leaders of either side, as part of a strategy that I call pro-voice.
What I hope to convey now is that addressing abortion as a matter of the heart and soul, rather than an issue of legal rights, can open up new possibilities for peace. I will show why compromise or politically-minded “common ground” solutions will not resolve our war: the abortion war.
Many readers have questioned my use of the term “abortion war” despite the fact that this terminology is a common cultural reference. I understand their concerns. In conflict, the ability to define the debate is part of the battle. Each side wants to name the problem in a way that supports their goals, and hurts their opponents. This is also true for the abortion war. If you ask people with a range of political views what the “abortion war” is about, you are bound to get very different answers. Some will say that the war is waged to save innocent unborn babies, and others argue that it was drummed up to drive a wedge between people who may otherwise agree. Still others say that the “abortion war” is in fact a patriarchal assault on women, their bodies, rights and sexuality. Fighting over the inherent meaning, the root cause, of any given conflict is intrinsic to every conflict.
Despite their disagreement, what people on different sides of the issue have in common is a deep and fundamental belief that their fight is not only important and justified, it is an opportunity and a privilege to fight for what they believe. In essence, this war isn’t about any one particular issue or right, it is about the importance of who we are, our own human dignity, and the strength of our conviction to fight on our own behalf.
I offer myself as an example.
I love a good debate. I love to be challenged to think in new, critical ways and equally enjoy pushing others to do the same. I believe fundamentally in people’s inherent goodness and in each person’s innate desire to strive to be better – and I believe that we can harness that drive to improve all of our lives. And I have had an abortion, something I never thought I would do, which has forever changed the way I look at the world. After my abortion, I came to understand the value of the phrase “Don’t judge others until you have walked a mile in their shoes” in a whole new way. I made a promise to myself to practice that value every day of my life. My abortion was an awakening, a maturing, and a loss of innocence, in the best and the most difficult sense of the term. Through direct personal experience with the issue, in combination with my own personal passions and drive, I have found this difficult debate over abortion to be an incredibly compelling place to put all my experiences, values and beliefs into practice.
This war gives me something to do, something valuable and something important. I do not want to give up that sense of purpose in my life. Neither do many of the women and men who have formed an identity as a pro-choice or pro-life crusader and who have invested time, passion, and money in their cause. That is why it is not effective when outsiders call for an end to war through compromise. Even though both sides can probably understand why “Americans are just tired of fighting over abortion” – as Jean Schroedel, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University told the Wall Street Journal recently – crusaders won’t accept compromise as a political solution because it demands that they sacrifice deep and profound parts of who they are and they will not. They cannot. I won’t.
In a war for human dignity, you cannot ask opponents to split the difference.
But, the fight over abortion has created a conflict of epic proportions, attacks are personal and crusaders are hurt. Feelings of disrespect, humiliation, and worse, misunderstanding, at the hands of opponents make the need to be seen and heard, to be proven right, even stronger. This is how conflict works, how it escalates and polarizes. With a deeper understanding about the cycle of conflict, not only can we de-escalate and transform the abortion war, we can take the steps that lead towards peace.
I believe that it is possible that as a society we may arrive at a time when we are able to discuss the role government should play in matters of sexuality, pregnancy and parenting without choosing sides through the lens of war, without worrying whether a decision will strengthen or weaken the political power of the pro-choice or pro-life movements. Peace does not mean that we all agree, but that we focus our higher purpose on transforming the conflict instead of feeding a war.
It is an interesting and unlikely time to plan for peace in the abortion war. After years of political losses, there is a clear pro-choice majority in all three branches of government and it is safe to assume that peace is not in the political interest of winners. And yet, after a long and vicious battle, wins are no longer as sweet for either side. Warriors, while as committed and passionate as always, are tired. The dramatic wins they hoped for have not occurred. One side has not captured the heart and soul of all Americans. In fact, Americans have demonstrated remarkable consistency on the issue – poll after poll demonstrates that most people don’t like the idea of abortion very much, think it’s a pretty significant emotional experience for women, and believe that it ends a human life-of-some-kind, but are against making it always or mostly illegal, and hate the idea of government regulating their private, personal lives.
Rather than continuing to invest in what is bound to be a long, vicious slog on an issue that feels increasingly irrelevant to Americans confronting grave threats to our planet and economy, we can invest in transforming the conflict and start addressing matters of the heart. We can begin with an apology (“I’m sorry I called you a baby-killer/vicious misogynist), a recognition (“The value you place on life/rights is admirable”), or a symbolic concession (“I believe abortion can be emotional for women/I believe in protecting the health of pregnant women”). We begin by saying: “I see you and I understand.”
Leaders on both sides can and should be the first and set an example for the rest. And, instead of trying to recruit more Americans to the fight, when we already know they are tired of it, leaders should invite Americans to join them: to grow our collective understanding about the experiences of women who have had abortions and to co-create a vision of care and support for women and their families. Americans are great problem-solvers – all we need is a little inspiration and someone ready and willing to lead the way.
Together, we can and we should venture towards peace.
*This article is cross-posted on RH Reality Check*