Last Friday, Chimes published an op-ed by a student staff writer headlined “Pro-choice at Calvin.”
Within days, the piece drew an outpouring of rancor from pro-lifers and swarms of social media “Likes” from like-minded pro-choicers.
To get it out of the way, I’ll admit here that I found the article’s arguments pretty lacking. But it must also be said that I have no qualms with its publication.
In an effort to avoid this response devolving into a digital duel, I won’t dwell for long on the actual premise of the editorial—that has been done enough already. What I want to do instead is address three things we might learn from this whole episode.
The power of words
Because my purpose here is not to advocate for one stance or another on abortion, I’ll skip the science/sociology/philosophy/theology lesson. I will say, however, that regardless of your perspective on the issue, we can all acknowledge poor arguments when we see them.
I hope we’ll each admit that there are a variety of reasonable arguments in defense of both the pro-life and pro-choice positions. What is amazing to me is that, with a long tradition of reasonable arguments to draw from, this editorial uses, as far as I can tell, none of them.
It seems to me that pro-choicers should be just as frustrated with the piece as pro-lifers, not because they disagree with the general premise, but because the justification was so flimsily articulated as to actually detract credibility from the position rather than gird it. Misused data mixed with a peculiar moral calculus, wrapped in a strawman portrayal of the pro-life position, left me scratching my head. Both arguments in the third paragraph in particular, if taken to even their nearest logical conclusions, are wildly problematic.
But even if strong arguments had been made, the piece and the reaction to it offer a much-needed lesson in the power of words.
In terms of the writer’s words, it probably does not need to be said that stacking irresponsible arguments one on top of the other, especially around such a sensitive topic, does no one any favors. And more specifically, the twisting and misuse of individual words is a dangerous proposition. The most obvious case is the term “anti-choice.” Clearly this is a subtle effort to paint one camp in a less-than-flattering light—what could be worse than being against choice! But it is also an unfair semantic game. It is the exact same thing as pro-lifers referring to their opponents as anti-life instead of pro-choice. Surely, that wouldn’t be a fair treatment. Also, the labels “sexist” and “racist,” and the phrases “social necessity” and “regressive morality” are used a little too flippantly, as they work as rhetorical daggers on a matter that is, quite simply, not that simple.
The weight of words was proven dangerous enough in the article, but, as usual, the commenters were not to be outdone. As was noted in a few comments, some of the responses—mostly from traditionalists—were more fiery, unfounded and ill-considered than anything in the piece itself. It seems even the humble Chimes isn’t without its trolls.
Heir to the many Old Testament proverbs that warn us to watch our words, the modern mantra has been said a million times before and apparently bears repeating: Beware the comment section!
The duties of education and journalism
One of the things that stunned and disappointed me most as I watched the backlash unfold was the negative backlash against Calvin College and the Chimes.
Let’s be clear that the piece in question was an opinion piece by a single student. In no way does it reflect the position of the school or the newspaper.
It stings me when I see and hear such biting scolds as, “Calvin College is jumping off the Christian wagon!” or “The Chimes will print anything these days!” These chides are entirely unwarranted.
For the college as a whole, I feel confident the article doesn’t reflect the school’s dominant view (and, even if it did, that wouldn’t mean it abandoned Christianity!). Only three years removed from my own college days, I assure you far crazier things than “Pro-choice at Calvin” are said and written. Part of education, Christian institution or otherwise, is about forming one’s own ideas. We should not expect—and, I submit, we should not even hope—that all students come out fitting the intellectual, spiritual and social molds of the class of yesteryear. As long as Christ crucified is the prevailing preaching, I don’t fear for the school’s soul.
And for Chimes, its very duty is to be a platform for discussion, and that includes dissenting views. If Chimes were to print only Synod-sanctioned journalism, it would have become merely propaganda. That’s not what we want for our students. Rather, we want them to be thoughtful, curious, ever-seeking, listening and understanding. We want them to be open-minded, as long as their minds are not open at both ends.
I know journalism is always in danger of falling into a most callous and destructive game. But, if done with proper integrity, it is a most noble endeavor. Keep up the good work, Chimes! I applaud you for the impressive page you’ve put together in the last few years. And, as a former Chimes Op-Ed editor, I would have sent “Pro-choice at Calvin” to print as well.
The calling of thoughtful Christians
Lastly, what do we do here as Christians? More generally, what do we do as decent human beings?
“Pro-choice at Calvin” packs quite a punch for coming in at just under 700 words, but the 140-character pingbacks and dinner table discussions in response will tell far more about the state of the faithful.
The momentary flareup over this article is a microcosm of so many issues that divide the Church, internally and from the world it seeks to reach. Let’s not leave the matter in such a way that, when we look back, we will say we left the Body more isolated and more hypocritical than we found it.
That may not mean utter acceptance, but it certainly means love. It may not mean law, but it certainly means grace.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.