Discussions about the most contentious issues, and even some not-so-contentious ones, are routinely labeled “debates.” For instance, there’s the debate over abortion, the debate over so-called same-sex marriage, and even the debate over who should be playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
But are these really debates? If by debate you mean a discussion where both sides gets a fair chance to make their respective cases, the answer is increasingly “no.”
Jennifer Lahl, a bioethicist, recently learned this the hard way. She was invited to a meeting of fertility specialists in Canada to discuss her documentary, Eggsploitation, about egg donation. Lahl told organizers that while she was happy to debate the issue, she would not go simply to be mugged. The organizers assured her “that they really wanted to hear from [her] and engage all sides of the issue.”
As you might guess, that’s not what happened. As Lahl told readers at BreakPoint.org, before she spoke, another presenter began by telling the audience he was a “Darwinist, secularist and Jewish.”
What does that have to do with the ethics of egg donation? Nothing, of course. People can be any or all of these things and still be troubled by the exploitative nature of egg donation. In fact, the other presenter actually shared some of Lahl’s concerns!
But the announcement had everything to do with what came next: a personal attack on Lahl based on her Christian faith. His so-called presentation consisted of slides showing where Lahl attended school, who her co-workers were, and her writings for Christian websites. His goal for the audience to know who Lahl was, not what she had to say. Her Christian credentials, in his estimation, disqualified her from even being heard.
And how did the audience respond? While one woman told a Canadian newspaper she was ashamed of how Lahl had been treated, the crowd, for the most part, cheered the “verbal mauling” that she received.
Sadly, Lahl’s experience is much more common than you would expect. As she asks in her BreakPoint.org article, “Who is allowed in the public square?” The answer is: Not Christians.
The directness of this attack and its unvarnished prejudice is intended to silence people like Lahl. It’s a way of saying, “If you disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy, this is what you can expect.”
Lahl, to her credit, refuses to be intimidated. In her words, she resolves not be silenced, especially at such a time as this. Sadly, her response is increasingly uncommon. What could be called a “spiral of silence” has taken hold in public discussion of moral issues. People are reluctant to speak out for fear of being treated as Lahl was.
The only response is to refuse to be intimidated. Remember two things: First, the Christian view of things like marriage and the sanctity of life is actually the majority view in this country. We’re not out of step with public opinion. The other side is! Second, remember that personal attacks, however painful, should be seen as admissions of the weakness of the other side’s case.
That’s why, instead of avoiding the debate, we should insist that it actually take place. Instead of remaining silent, we must speak out.
I talk more about the “spiral of silence” and how we can break it on my “Two-Minute Warning” at ColsonCenter.org. Don’t miss it.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: November 3, 2011