12 Rules for Protecting Life (Part Five)
This is Part Five of "12 Rules for Protecting Life: An Antidote to Abortion"—which applies Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life to the issue of abortion.
Rule #9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
If Rule 7 offers the most straightforward condemnation of abortion, this one might be the most roundabout. I say that because—at first glance—it’s a rule devoid of internal substance. It’s ideologically neutral. It’s the Switzerland of life rules. It refuses to take a side. How then can Rule 9 offer anything like a definitive condemnation of abortion? To my thinking, it all hinges on the word “might.” Jordan Peterson isn’t arguing that all people have something to teach us or that all positions are equally valid, but he does commend a willingness to listen to all comers with an open mind. In today’s political clime, that is an ideological position—and it’s one that moves people emphatically away from abortion.
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There are two things I learned almost immediately as an on-campus anti-abortion activist. This was back in 1999, when I traveled the country with the Center for Bio-ethical Reform. First, most “pro-choice” college students had never given serious thought to the issue of abortion or heard a wall-articulated condemnation. They were pro-choice by default—which was and is the de facto position at state universities. These are students who have accepted the notion that opposition to abortion is outmoded, but have never put the premise to the test. Second—and this one surprised me more, professional abortion advocates were almost entirely unwilling to publicly debate abortion.
In those days, the Genocide Awareness Project—which is the photo-mural exhibit that took me from school to school—spent a week at each university we visited. Part of that visit included a formal on-campus presentation, followed by a Q&A session. During each one, we would invariably hear repetition of the same question: Why don’t you have someone presenting the other side? The answer was quite simple. Nobody would. It was virtually impossible to find a “pro-choice” professor or professional who was willing to participate in a moderated campus debate about abortion. For some, it was an official policy position—rationalized on the assertion that those who oppose abortion are too abhorrent to share a stage with. It would be like fraternizing with a Nazi.
Tactically speaking, not debating abortion makes tremendous sense for those who support it. Why jeopardize the status quo? A general ignorance of abortion’s inner workings is much better for business. That’s because the more someone knows about abortion, the less likely they are to have one, recommend one, or support one as a matter of public policy. Open and honest abortion discussions tend to lead people in the same direction—away from abortion. There’s nothing for the abortion industry to gain by debating. And while their unwillingness to engage is ostensibly rooted in moral repugnance, the pragmatic benefits are too obvious to ignore. Misperceptions drive the abortion industry, but they can’t be maintained under a microscope. The more vague and abstract abortion remains, the longer its shelf life.
When Jordan Peterson argues that we should listen to other people, he’s not inferring that we should take their advice or make their position our own. No, he’s merely stating that we should entertain the possibility that they’re right and we’re wrong. It’s possible, after all, that they know more about something than we do. But even if it turns out they don’t, the mere willingness to hear them out demonstrates a healthy measure of humility. And the willingness to reject their contention—if the reasoning proves false—demonstrates a healthy measure of wisdom and courage. Taking the advice of other people can be a very good thing, but it can also be a very bad thing. It all depends on who you’re listening to and what they’re saying. In the context of abortion, bad advice can be fatal—and so can unheeded good advice. Consider these post-abortion testimonies from the Abort73 website:
I shouldn't have listened to the baby's dad. I made the wrong choice. Please, ladies, don't have an abortion.
I killed my baby, and I will forever regret it… My advice to anyone going through a similar situation: DON’T LISTEN TO THEM! Have your baby, and love your baby.
If I could go back and listen to myself and not him, I would have kept the baby and been the best mom I could be. If you’re getting an abortion, make sure it is what you want and no one else, or you'll be like me—losing it every day and always upset.
I kept hoping for him to be man enough to tell me to not get [an abortion]—that he would help out no matter how hard it would have been, but he never did, nor did he even acknowledge my pregnancy. I regret listening to him. I've called an abortion hotline because I feel so alone. I will always live with this guilt.
I live with regret every day of my life. I watch people around me having babies, posting photos, and it kills me. My advice is never, ever listen to someone who wants to make a decision for you. I will never love my husband the same again. I have anger deep down inside of me, that he could do such a thing, and anger for myself in listening to him.
I despise myself for taking the life of an innocent child. Who was I to take my child's life? I wish I would have listened when someone told me not to do it.
Having your baby is the only option that you will not regret. I wish I would have listened when someone told me that. You are free to choose, but you are not free of the consequences.
He begged me repeatedly for weeks to keep his baby—not only because he wanted a baby but because he loved me and he wanted to be with me too. I was so stubborn. I wish I would have just listened to him… I am a selfish individual.
Regret is a terrible thing to endure—especially BIG regret. It can paralyze you. For those in its grip, the regret of having intentionally ended the life of your own unborn child is as big as it gets. It’s probably the most common BIG regret in the world. Sometimes it follows on the heels of bad advice taken and sometimes on the heels of good advice ignored. But how can you tell—in the moment—the difference between the two? One way is to simply go back to Rules 7 & 8. Is what you’re being told true? Or is it merely expedient? Is it advice that can be followed with nobility and honor? Or is it likely to lead to weakness and shame? These are the questions that must be asked of the counsel we receive from others and the counsel we receive from ourselves. Peterson writes:
People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare—just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree.
The unwillingness to consider a counter argument—even when it springs from your own psyche—is a mark of immaturity and folly. It is dangerous to live in an echo chamber, where you only ever hear ideas that confirm your personal biases. Your biases might be right, but the only way you’ll know for sure is to put them to the test. Too often, we simply talk past each other or ignore each other altogether. Don’t do that. Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not that all people have something to teach you, but all people might have something to teach you—so be willing to hear them out. Don’t just assume you know everything. Assume you don’t. Start at the beginning, and leave your prejudice at the door. When you do that with regard to abortion, I’m fairly certain where the exercise will ultimately lead.
Rule #10 Be precise in your speech
Measuring in at a mere five words, Rule 10 is the shortest of the bunch. At face value, we might call it an extension of Rule 8. Imprecise speech, after all, is a form of deception—which is motivated by one of two things. Either the person speaking doesn’t have a sufficient understanding of the subject matter—and wants to hide that fact, or else the speaker does have a sufficient understanding but fears the consequences of articulating it. Casual supporters of abortion are in the first camp. Those who sell abortion are in the second.
If we circle back to Planned Parenthood’s description of abortion, we’ll find a real-world example of imprecise speech in action. They state on their website that surgical abortion uses “gentle suction to remove the pregnancy from your uterus.” This is as vague and imprecise a description of abortion as you’re likely to find anywhere, and it comes from the largest abortion business in America. I screenshot it from time to time because it blows my mind that they actually leave it up there—for all the world to see. I guess there’s something to say for friends in high places.
Does Planned Parenthood really not know that pregnancy is the term used to describe the period from conception to birth—and not the “thing” that is vacuumed from the mother’s uterus? Of course they know. It’s their business to know, but they employ this preposterous confusion of terms to so that abortion can remain an obscurity in the minds of their prospective clients. I might have a shred of respect for Planned Parenthood if they owned up to what they’re doing and made a straightforward case for why they believe the deaths of human embryos and fetuses are morally justified. But they continue to double down on this elaborate charade in which abortion is a perfectly benign and harmless procedure. What does Planned Parenthood do with the massive body of evidence that calls the legitimacy of abortion into question? They simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Move along; move along. Nothing to see here!
I should note at this point that when Jordan Peterson prescribes speaking with precision, his “precise” application is not immediately apparent. In other words, there is more to Rule 10 than its five words let on. Yes, it has value in the broadest sense, but the specific speech Peterson has in view is that which connects to the formulation of your life’s ambition. “Be precise in your aim,” would be another way of rendering Rule 10. Don’t get mired in the fog of unarticulated goals or frustrations. Peterson notes our tendency to scoff at Jesus’ claim, “Ask and you will receive,” but putting your desires into words—and articulating them as specifically as you possibly can—is the first step to actually seeing those desires realized. Peterson writes:
When things break down, what has been ignored rushes in. When things are no longer specified, with precision, the walls crumble, and chaos makes its presence known. When we’ve been careless, and let things slide, what we have refused to attend to gathers itself up, adopts a serpentine form, and strikes—often at the worst possible moment. It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protects us from.
The world is too big and dangerous to wander through without aim. Our eyes aid us on this front by filtering out all that does not immediately concern us. This keeps our visual circuits from overloading and makes what would otherwise be an impossibly complex world one that we can actually navigate. Peterson recommends we take a similar approach with our metaphorical eyes:
When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by. What we inhabit, then, is this “enough.” That is a radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world—and it’s almost impossible for us not to mistake it for the world itself. But the objects we see are not simply there, in the world, for our simple, direct perceiving. They exist in a complex multi-dimensional relationship to one another, not as self-evidently separate, bounded, independent objects. We perceive not them, but their functional utility and, in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.
There is utility in reducing the world to bare essentials, but there is also danger. What if a key piece of information is inadvertently—or intentionally—left out? This has direct application to the issue of abortion. The risk in perceiving “only what is enough for our plans and actions to work,” is that it might incentivize turning a blind eye to that which should be pricking our conscience. When an abortion clinic tells a woman, “We’ll take care of this for you,” that may be true, but it’s imprecise. And the devil is in the details—especially when it comes to abortion. Our radical oversimplification of the world makes it possible for us to survive and function, but it can also blind us. The system only works so long as all necessary information is obtained and accounted for.
Planned Parenthood is leaving crucial information off the table. They are not being precise in their explanation of what abortion is and does. Human development begins at fertilization. This is an unequivocal fact of biology. Everyone contemplating abortion should be told this. Abortion chemically or surgically kills a tiny human being—without their consent. Everyone contemplating abortion should be told this. Abortion is legal—so its perpetrators will not be prosecuted for homicide, but it is a real and permanent death. Everyone contemplating abortion should be told this. Why doesn’t Planned Parenthood make any of these disclosures part of their pre-abortion counseling? Their then-president told Ms. magazine in 1997 that “[everyone already knows] that abortion is killing.” The “pretense that abortion is not killing,” she continued, “is a signal of our ambivalence.” It seems, then, that by operating on the premise that everyone already knows abortion is killing, Planned Parenthood feels justified in helping people maintain their ambivalence—by pretending that it doesn’t.
Abortion could not survive in “civilized” society were it not for imprecise speech. Describing abortion in vague and sanitized terms—as the entire industry does—allows someone to choose abortion for its utility without having to count its moral cost. It’s a sort of deal with the devil. The future is sacrificed to the present. The dragon is temporarily put off, but it will come back with far more strength and fury. “If you have to fight a dragon,” Peterson opined in a 2017 lecture, “you should go to its lair before it comes to your village.” This metaphorical dragon might still destroy you, but your chances for survival are way better when you confront it early and on your own terms. “Confront the chaos of Being,” Peterson encourages. “Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course.” This is his prescription for restoring order:
When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.
Abortion leaves the fog of an unexamined and unarticulated life intact. That’s where abortion thrives. Like the crisis pregnancy that preceded it, it is a manifestation of carelessness and imprecision. And though leaving the fog intact might seem preferable in the moment, it is a horrible longterm strategy. It can only hide the dragon; it cannot destroy it. “Precision may leave the tragedy intact,” as Peterson points out, “but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.” More significantly, facing things head on—with precision—actually makes the tragedy manageable and prevents it from growing larger in the shadows. Anyone who wants to be precise in their speech and precise in their aim should reject the moral fog that leads to and results from abortion.
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