Circumstances have a devilish way of narrowing our perception of reality and ourselves. Imagine living in a blighted, inner city neighborhood where many of the young men carry firearms. You try to sit down with any one of them and explain how absurd the situation is—that they don’t have to be in a situation where so many people carry weapons—that, as a group, as a community, they can choose a better life together than one plagued by suspicion and the threat of violence. Yet the fellow tells you that he needs to protect himself and his family. In his mind it is not just unrealistic—it’s a matter of survival—for him to carry or not carry a weapon. He is experiencing circumstances that make it deeply challenging for him to perceive—to imagine—a different kind of neighborhood and community.
I’ve seen a similar phenomenon occur during classroom debates over whether or not the United States was justified in dropping two atom bombs on Japan toward the end of the Second World War. If the issue is framed in a certain way, using justifications like “the war had to be brought to an end,” that “huge numbers of American soldiers would have died in a ground invasion,” then of course it seems like the lesser of two enormous evils. But tear the frame off of that perspective for a moment, step back, and ask yourself a question: how in God’s name did the human race arrive to a point in history when the decisions to design, test, and actually use weapons of this magnitude were even made? Those bombs obliterated every person, dog, cat, bird, tree, flower, and caterpillar for miles. “Well we had to do it,” someone interjects, and so civilization remains steadfastly in a dark room unlit by imagination.
The abortion debate is a third example to drive home this point about perceptions being obstinately “pre-framed.” Most people with whom I’ve discussed the issue operate from a principle in their hearts—meaning their thoughts on the matter and all justification of those thoughts proceed from a deeper position that is usually unalterable. The position is either that human life is sacred from conception or that human freedom and self-determination, in this case that of the mother, should be inviolable. Two people who in my opinion managed to lay out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of this extremely sensitive bioethical, political, and for some, spiritual, issue were Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in a book published twenty years ago called Billions and Billions; it’s unusual to hear or read a perspective on this issue that does not from the outset protect an already decided-upon position.
On the topic of abortion, the most interesting development I’ve both heard and read about recently is the current consensus among scientists not to experiment on human embryos after the fourteenth day of development, at which point what’s called “the primitive streak” appears—the first cells that remain intact from that point forward, and also the point at which there is no longer any chance of division into twins. Note that neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice crowds would be satisfied with a 14-day rule on when or whether to terminate a pregnancy.
In all three cases—whether to carry a weapon in a crime-ridden neighborhood, whether the dropping on an atom bomb is ever justified, and how limits (if any) should be set for ending unwanted pregnancies—we encounter a deeper issue: the inclination to defend a “side” that one has already decided upon. The problem with this inclination is that the causes of the issue go unattended to and unresolved. Prior forces are at work that allow neighborhoods to decay, nations to go to war, and unintended conceptions to occur. And in all cases, concerned parties are called to identify and analyze those forces and address them—to go to the roots of social issues.