Scholarly Trigger Warnings

Scholarly Trigger Warnings December 20, 2016

Readers of the historiography of religion in the United States might have sensed a cultural wave that Donald Trump’s candidacy caught if they read Daniel K. Williams fine history of the pro-life movement, Defenders of the Unborn. Before even getting to the history, Williams felt compelled to explain his words and perform a kind of mea culpa:

To a degree than most other historical topics, the debate over abortition is an issue of current political controversy with deep convictions on both sides, which means that any terminology surrounding the issue of aborition is likely to be contentious and laden with political overtones. This book is an attempt to explain the history of one side of that controversy and the development of its ideas — ideas that some readers may find deeply objectionable. Thus, in tracing this history, I have made choices in wordign that some readers may find disconcerting.

Back when I was in graduate schools, this sort of throat clearing would have been rare since a book published by a university press was supposed to be read by professional scholars and serious students who were also supposed to be used to encountering ideas and words that challenged and maybe even put off a bit but in the iron-sharpening-iron world of academic life and serious study, that’s what you did — you considered difficult thoughts.

But now, authors sense that even scholarship can be offensive to serious scholars. Sensitivity triumphs. It feels like the fundamentalists won — those who needed to be excused from explicit material in high school or who objected to books deemed dirty.

Williams goes on to try to justify his use of “pro-life” instead of the Associated Press’ recommended “anti-aborition.”

. . . there are at least two reasons for a historian to use the term “pro-life.” First, this term, along with the phrase “right-to-life,” has been the term favored by almost all activists in the movement since the late 1960s. If we want to approach the study of the pro-life movement as historians, rather than as champions of a particular political opinion, it would probably be best to set aside our presuppositions and attempt to understand the movement’s own use of terminology before passing judgment on it. But I think that there is an even more important reason for me to use the term “pro-life” in this historical account, and that is that the pro-life movement thought of itself from the very beginning not as a movement primarily devoted to opposing abortion . . . but as a movement to defend the legal protection of all human life from the moment of conception. . . . in their view, the term “pro-life” was the most accurate descriptor of their political project.

If people don’t object to “born-again” which assumes that non-born-again people are unregenerate (talk about high stakes), why is pro-life so objectionable? But that’s the kind of inconsistency about sensitivity that has everyone walking on egg shells — except for the president-elect.

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