After twenty-four years of schooling, I like to think I’ve earned the right to be a little foggy on the details of my education. But there’s at least one thing I remember with clarity. It happened the second day of a graduate film seminar, back in 2016. The professor was telling a story about his efforts to persuade an acquaintance to support one or another of California’s interminable ballot propositions. He cited research. He drew on examples. In tidy little syllogisms, he laid out his reasoning. In short, he did what any scholar worth their salt would do, and when he finished, his acquaintance agreed. The argument in favor of the proposition made perfect sense. Even so, they would be voting against it.
That story, or parable maybe, has been on my mind these past few weeks. In a general sense, there’s something about the story’s honesty, or else just its pessimism, that I find instructive, even attractive. In any case, it certainly feels like an accurate diagnosis of the present. After all, in the face of ongoing climate inaction, deepening class inequities, and fascist hand-wringing—and worse—about so-called great replacements, it truly is absurd to insist on the fundamental rationality of human beings. Facts, as US political life makes abundantly clear over and over and over again, care very much about your feelings. Facts, it turns out, have always cared about your feelings, just as they have always cared about other things as well, such as pocketbooks, capital investments, and market shares.
But my professor’s parable has haunted my thinking in a narrower sense, too. This post began as a response to the leaked draft opinion on Roe v. Wade. I wanted to write against the opinion, against its enthusiastic embrace by the antiabortion Christians I grew up with, and against the rapid recalibration of conservative organizing, which has already begun to set its sights on other forms of family planning. My wife Jes in fact proposed this piece, after reading Katie Van Zanen’s stunning essay a few days ago. Jes’s medical history touches directly on reproductive health and does so in ways, she suggested, that Christian antiabortion activists don’t often consider. And she’s right. Still, if one of the lessons of my professor’s story is that sound arguments don’t cut it—that reason motivates people far less than fantasy, desire, and fear—it’s difficult to define the practical utility of a post like this one. What does it mean to write in defense of reproductive rights when, from the jump, you don’t put much stock in the capacity of facts and arguments to persuade, much less to persuade about an issue that has been aggressively politicized since long before you were born?
A few facts.
May is Lupus Awareness Month, and in 2015, shortly after we got married, Jes was diagnosed with lupus. A serious autoimmune disease, lupus turns the body against itself. It causes constant exhaustion, severe inflammation, and organ complications, and there were times during the early days of our marriage when the stiffness in Jes’s limbs and hands meant that she moved through our apartment, bent and tired not like a person in her early twenties but like one in her late eighties. During those days, medications helped a lot. Medications still help a lot. Medications, however, also come with their own problems. For example, should Jes ever want to get pregnant, she would have to stop taking her medicine and coordinate closely with her rheumatologist, for any pregnancy would, unavoidably, be high risk. Moreover, since conventional birth control pills interact dangerously with her lupus, her primary alternative is an intrauterine device, which she has. Yet even now, IUDs are in some states being considered for a ban because lawmakers assert they’re a form of abortion.
In truth, it’s not difficult for me to imagine a conversation like the one described by my professor, playing out in relation to Jes’s medical history. Jes and I would cite research. We would draw examples from our life together. We would lay out our reasoning. The arguments in defense of Jes’s reproductive rights would make sense—to us. Maybe our interlocutor would even agree. And yet I would be shocked if our conversation did not, in the end, angle toward that seemingly inevitable rejoinder: even so.
What does it mean to try to persuade when you don’t think you can? On one hand, it means some very immediate things. Thanks to insurance and steady employment, it means that Jes and I maintain—and will continue to maintain—hypervigilance when it comes to sex. It means the use of fail-safes, IUDs and condoms not alone but together. It also means talking, to friends who’ve undergone the procedure, about what’s involved in a vasectomy. But it can mean other things as well. Indeed, if there’s one consolation to be taken from my professor’s parable, it’s not that persuasion is impossible. It’s that when thinking about persuasion, we tend to give reason far too much credit. The engine of resistance and change has never been rational argumentation, abstracted from the bodies and material circumstances it aims to influence. The engine instead has always been the bodies themselves, in solidarity—organized and ready to push back.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.