Bridging the Gap
Finding Common Ground—And Accepting Controversy—On the Things that Matter Most
Against the piercingly blue Cambridge sky stood the man with the sign. His skin was etched with wrinkles, and a scraggly beard shadowed his jaw. Despite his tall stature, his narrow frame was hunched exhaustedly. Chronicled in his very stance were years of bitter passion, decades of crippling disappointment.
A river of students, each more covetous of precious, fleeting time than the next, flowed hurriedly past. Beneath worn, swollen lids, the man’s wild eyes scanned the insensible crowd. “Listen!” he called, waving his block-letter sign and a stack of flyers at the indifferent students. “Listen! We need a revolution! Join the revolution!”
The hoarse voice demanded my attention; I slowed my own hustling pace and peered at the sign curiously. “Forced pregnancy is slavery,” read the bold, black letters. “Demand unlimited access to abortion now!”
By then, I had halted totally. I reread, blinked, processed. Noticing my gaze, the graying man approached me. “So,” he began, handing me a flyer, “you’re a young person living in these crazy times—what do you think of our world?”
What did I think?
I told him.
I told him that I, too, see the flaws and appalling injustice of our world. I, too, feel compelled to fight for human rights. The right closest to my heart is the most fundamental of all, the right to life. Protecting all human life, regardless of age, ability, and status, compels me to oppose the very cause this man fights for: abortion.
Taken aback, the man blinked. “What?” he countered, immediately defensive. “Why?”
I told him.
I told him that biologically, a unique human life begins at conception, and abortion is nothing less than the destruction of this innocent, vulnerable human being. I told him that women’s rights certainly matter, but not at the expense of their babies’. I told him—
“Enough!” he interrupted me disgustedly. “I don’t have time for this.” Shaking his head, he turned away from me. He returned to his station, wielded his sign with increased ardor, and resumed his impassioned cry: “Join the revolution!”
I don’t have time for this… I don’t have time for this… The man’s rough, panicked words reverberated in my ears as I looked down at the flyer still clutched in my hand. “To everyone who can’t stand the world the way it is,” the leaflet began, “who is sick and tired of so many people being treated as less than human… everyone who has the heart to fight for something that is really worth fighting for: You need to be part of this revolution.”
I shook my head in disbelief: this man considered me his enemy, yet his leaflet was addressed to me.
“No man,” writes Mary Wollstonecraft, “chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”When considering their political counterparts, both liberals and conservatives would do well to remember this dictum. In an increasingly polarized society, decent people on both ends of the political spectrum are tempted, trained, and encouraged to regard their opponents not as fellow citizens but as subhuman monsters. Liberals accuse conservatives of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and classism; conservatives, in turn, characterize liberals as immoral, antireligious, un-American communists. What do these caricatures have in common? Not only are they grossly inflammatory and overgeneralized; they also reflect a gaping deficit of dialogue.
“I don’t have time for this.” This response—or one of its infinite variations—is an all too common reaction to those who challenge our beliefs and assumptions. Perhaps our refusal to listen stems from the pernicious, widespread perception that our opponents and their views are evil: their “malice” and “depravity,” we believe, justify our earplugs. Or, perhaps, we stop up our ears out of fear. Like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, we are unsettled by the unexpected power of a different perspective. That this new way of thinking might compel us radically (or even marginally) to change our beliefs terrifies us. It is far better, argues Alcibiades, to stop listening altogether than to risk our comfortable habits for the pain of self-reflection and shattered assumptions.
Or is it? Willingness to listen to differing opinions does not indicate weakness of conviction. Rather, dialogue allows us both to recognize the merits of opposing views (and, relatedly, the humanity of their advocates) and to articulate and refine our own positions. Only through discussion can we open ourselves to different perspectives and escape the seductive certainty of dogmatism. Conversely, only through discussion can we disseminate our profoundest and most heartfelt convictions and, perhaps, win a supporter or friend. Politics, after all, is inherently social—it aims not merely to help the individual but to transform society. To further this mission, then, we must treat our opponents not as enemies but as fellow citizens and stakeholders.
Reflecting on the cruciality of dialogue and its tragic deficit in our society, I recall the man with the sign. Our interaction ended in sudden anger and bitter silence. This result, however, was hardly inevitable. Might our conversation, I wonder, have gone otherwise?
It is late summer in Cambridge: behind the bustling hordes of students, professors, and passersby, arching trees amble and sway in the lazy warmth of the breeze. The air is fresh, jubilant, the sky, burningly, desperately blue. Framed against this scene is the man with the sign. Stooped with exhaustion yet aflame with passion, he beckons me over and eagerly presents me a flyer. “So,” he asks, his eyes locking with mine, “what do you think of our world?”
What do I think?
I tell him.
I tell him that I, too, am dissatisfied with the state of our world. Ostensibly demanding justice for all, modern society frequently forgets or outright flouts the rights of the voiceless. The most gruesome example of this hypocrisy is abortion. In the name of “equality,” “freedom,” and “women’s rights,” over 800,000 babies are killed by abortions annually in the US alone.800,000 babies per year. Is this really women’s rights?
As I speak, the man’s face expands with surprise. He tilts his head and gazes at me pensively. “May I ask,” he replies calmly, “why you think the way you do?”
I tell him.
I tell him that I, like he, believe that every human being is unique, beautiful, and valuable. Furthermore, I know with scientific certainty when human life begins: conception. This statement is not religious opinion nor political dogma but biological fact, and to draw the line anywhere else is logically untenable. A human being from fertilization, every baby possesses natural rights at all stages of growth. Abortion, then, is both the killing of an innocent human person and a horrific violation of human dignity.
Should the powerful be permitted to trample on the rights of the vulnerable? Should abortion, a painful and downright violent procedure, be not only condoned but celebrated? Should women, conveniently forgetting the way in which they came into the world, demand the right to kill their own children? Is abortion—a euphemism for homicide—really liberation?
No, I tell him. We can do better. And if we truly desire a world in which all lives are valued regardless of age, race, class, or status, we must do better.
Quietly, calmly, confidently, I speak to the man.
And he listens.
Although he is inclined to disagree, he explains after I conclude, he recognizes the merits of my argument and will certainly ponder the issue further. It’s funny, he says: despite our radically different worldviews, we hold many common values. Compassion, liberty, justice… although we apply these principles in opposing ways, we both cherish them nonetheless. He shakes his head. “Who would have thought?” he asks.
The man and I chat a while—about life and hope, passion and politics—before shaking hands and exchanging names. Mutually satisfied with our conversation, we part ways, grateful for our unexpected interaction.
Perhaps we don’t agree on everything, but that’s ok. The point, after all, is not the man’s sign but the human being who holds it.
A version of this article originally appeared in Death in Paradise, the December 2021 print issue of the Salient.
Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” (Köln: Könemann, p. 68, 1998).
Rachel Jones et al., “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2020,” Guttmacher Institute, Nov. 2022.
Beautiful writing and insightful comments.