Signals (BWAA)

Signals (BWAA) May 27, 2021

A culture war with real consequences is coming,” Ronald Brownstein writes, looking toward the coming post-Roe world of criminalizing abortion:

A new Supreme Court ruling providing states greater freedom to restrict abortion access, which could come before the 2022 elections, would dramatically change that equation by making the debate far more tangible.

“It’s one thing to say it’s a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies Americans’ attitudes about cultural issues. “But it’s another thing to say this is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives on the ground, their health, their ability to plan their families. All of these are very concrete ways in which this issue could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets in a way we haven’t seen” for decades.

Put another way, while many of today’s most volatile social issue disputes involve statements of values that will touch vanishingly few Americans in their daily lives … the potential for significant new restrictions, or even bans, on abortion would amount to a culture war with more widely felt consequences.

Brownstein’s piece is politics-focused, but it’s about the way that our national politics might change when the abstract becomes unavoidably tangible. That means it’s also about our current national politics, which are shaped by the abstract avoidance of the tangible. When Brownstein and Robert P. Jones talk about a future in which abortion “could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets,” what they’re also saying is that our current politics is based on abortion opponents’ fierce determination to keep their ideology abstract.

Here, though, I think Jones’ description is slightly off. He speaks of opposition to legal abortion as “a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for.” That’s right, but because he and Brownstein are talking national politics and national politicians, he’s describing the exceptional and unusual circumstance of those politicians. For them, this “symbolic issue … signals” one’s allegiance for an audience of others — an audience of voters. And that’s not it’s function for most “pro-life” people who seek to criminalize abortion.

For most “pro-lifers,” this is a symbolic issue that serves as a signal for themselves. It’s not me signaling to others “what team I play for.” It’s me signaling to myself that I am virtuous and moral and good. It is a symbolic signal from me and to me — a signal that signifies my identity for myself. It is how I assure and reassure and re-reassure myself that I am good.

That signal in itself is insufficient for membership in the team. Belonging to the team requires a second thing — a mutual agreement that all of us who are busily signaling to ourselves that “I am good” will also accept and affirm the goodness of our fellow team members.

“This signal proves that I am good,” I tell myself. And therefore I acknowledge that your affirmation of the same signal also proves that you are good. And in exchange for my acknowledgement of your goodness, you will in turn reaffirm mine.

It’s all immensely reassuring for everyone on the team. Because it needs to be. Because we’re all aware that nearly everything other than this symbolic issue signaling our virtue provides unsettling and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

We need this symbolic signal of our moral identity as good, in other words, because we’re aware of all of the tangible, actual injustices and harms in which we are complicit. No matter how determined we may be to avoid ever looking at those things directly, we can’t help but catch glimpses of them out of the corners of our eyes. We know they’re there. We know what they mean. And we cannot bear to accept that. So we seek, and create, and latch on to some abstract symbol that will signify to ourselves a more bearable, more acceptable, more comfortable idea — the idea that, no, we are the Good Guys, the moral high-grounders, the righteous.

We are good. We must be. Right? I’ll tell myself that I’m good and I’ll tell you that you’re good and you can tell me that I’m good and if we all say that enough and signal that enough then maybe the noise of all of that will drown out everything else and we’ll almost be able to believe it.

That’s what the signal is for.

Which is why there’s no such thing as a political or a religious opposition to legal abortion. There is only a political and a religious commitment to BWAA, “But What About Abortion?”

For an example of what this looks like in action, see Emma Green’s interview with the now-ex-evangelical rapper Lecrae, “The Political Gains and Lost Faith of Evangelical Identity.” Lecrae himself once, unwittingly, served as a symbolic signal of white evangelical virtue — the Black Friend they could point to in order to reassure themselves that, “See? I can’t be the Bad Guy!” But once he began to notice, or to mention, anything that challenged this identity of pure virtue and innocence and goodness, he ceased to serve that signaling function and became a threat that needed to be rejected and silenced.

Initially, all Lecrae really did was mourn the death of Trayvon Martin. He thought that was uncontroversial — shouldn’t people who are “pro-life” mourn the death of a young human being? But that was part of the vast noise that the signal was designed to block out. Lecrae was violating the terms of the agreement, breaking the spell, failing to be a good team player.

And then came November 2016 and the 81 percent.

Lecrae: The crazy thing is, is that we were all in mourning. We had all grown up, you know, these unchurched kids who had gravitated toward conservative evangelicalism, and it had let us down, and it hadn’t cared about us or our story or our history, and its politics were crushing us. And we were all devastated.

And, you know, I have some friends who are no longer Christians now. Just so many different people, um, saying, “Man, this is traumatizing, and we can’t do it anymore.”

Green: Do you feel like you and your friends and these people who you talk with are the human cost of that tight tie between evangelicalism and conservative Republican politics?

Lecrae: Absolutely. Without a doubt, we were the sacrifice made. And what’s funny is I can hear the comeback now, saying, “No, the sacrifices are those babies in the womb.”

He can hear that because he does hear that. BWAA BWAA BWAA. All day, every day.



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