Two Quick Hits in the Culture War

Projection is Not the Same Thing as Analysis

The story of Emily Letts is making its way through the Interwebz this week.  She is a 25-year old woman who filmed a video of her abortion and the immediate aftermath.  Letts says she released the video as a counter to the notion that abortion is a shameful act that leaves the women that seek one damaged in its wake.  Unsurprisingly, there has been commentary from the Catholic blogosphere, notably from Elizabeth Scalia.  Scalia purports, based on a study of her facial expressions in one segment of the video, to see the truth of the video:

If you let yourself become distracted by what is coming from her mouth, you miss all that is revealed in her face, which tells the whole, and very different story. A month after the abortion — with the dramatic change in hairstyle that so many women effect when emotions are high and they need to feel in control of something — watch Emily, then. The light is gone from her eyes. The seeming disconnect between pc-fed head and instinctive heart is laid out in breathtaking and stark incongruity, even down to the shadows, the blue note, the lack of energy. Devastating. Cognizant of it or not, she is a mother in grief.

Now, I am the last person to criticize someone else for drawing conclusions about someone based on the appearance of their eyes.  I am a firm believer in the concept of "the Crazy Eye"--a term my family developed for the fact that people who are loony tend to manifest it in the eyes.  As an example, Michelle Bachmann is the reigning queen of the Crazy Eye.  So I do not dismiss what Scalia is saying out of hand.

Having said that, I don't see it.  Ms. Letts has a bit of the Crazy Eye, and her comments on the video are evidence that she may be a little loopy.  But I don't see the "light gone from her eyes."  And, as far as the haircut goes, I mean, women change their hair styles.  Even if it is true that the (rather significant) event in her life of having an abortion was the catalyst for the new haircut, I don't see how it follows that she must secretly regret the decision to have an abortion, or that she will regret it at some undefined point in the future.  She could view the incident as highly significant, but ultimately positive, or something she learned something from, or whatever.

Scalia, like many in the pro-life movement, has invested a great deal of intellectual and emotional capital in the notion that women regret having abortions.  That regret, in this paradigm, is a product of the inherent and self-evident morally wrongness of an abortion.  And, if a woman doesn't overtly appear to regret an abortion, like Ms. Letts, it must be a product of some left-wing false consciousness (the "pc-fed head").  The problem is that she is trying to prove too much.  Human emotional responses simply do not fit into the neat boxes that Scalia and others want to jam them into.  And thinking that you know how someone will react to an experience ex ante is a very strange kind of intellectual arrogance.

It is certainly possible that Ms. Letts will come to regret having an abortion, but it is equally possible that she will always view her abortion in precisely the way she expressed in the video.  Who knows?  Certainly not me, and not Elizabeth Scalia.

Update:  A truly inspired bit of Concern-Trolling from the at-times-very-unpleasant Katrina Fernandez.

Wake Up the Echoes

Like it or not (and many don't), Notre Dame is the flag bearer for Catholic higher education--a role that Notre Dame has very carefully and aggressively cultivated and promoted.  This status is the product of three factors.  First, Notre Dame has become a world-class academic institution (#18 in the country in the recent US News Rankings, and the top Catholic school).  Second, Notre Dame has one of the top overall athletic programs in the country--not just football, but in a wide variety of sports.  And third, it is seen as being on the traditional/conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, particularly as compared to its Jesuit peer institutions (i.e. Georgetown and Boston College).

In that light, it is very interesting to see Notre Dame produce a video in support of the You Can Play campaign.  You Can Play is a program to support LGBTQ athletes, with the basic assumption that they will be out to their teammates and team administrators.  And Notre Dame is not slow-playing this--the video is currently on the front page of the athletic department's website.

I suppose there are two ways to look at this.  The cynical interpretation is that everything at Notre Dame is subordinate to the athletic program, and if a gay athlete can help ND wins games, then that is A-OK with them.  I am sure there is some measure of truth to that, and on some level this public statement is motivated by a desire to be put at a competitive disadvantage by excluding a gay or lesbian athlete.

But I think there is more to it than that.  If you look at polls of current college age students, there is almost universal support for gay rights, support that cuts across political and religious affiliations.  In other words, gay issues are not about liberal/secular students versus conservative/traditionally religious students, as they often are among older cohorts--the conservative/religious students, by and large, support gay rights as well.  And universities, who are among these folks on a daily basis, know this.  A big part of the culture of Notre Dame is the deep connection that its alumni have with the school, a connection that is forged while the person is on campus.  Alienating their students by pursuing an approach to gay issues that is fundamentally at odds with the views of a vast majority of its students is not the Notre Dame way.

This is a generational fact that all religions, including Catholicism, are going to have to reckon with.  The ship has sailed on gay rights issues.  One can either stick to the older, strident anti-gay position, and find oneself preaching to a smaller and smaller segment of the population that is willing to listen.  Or one can reassess, and find a way to reconcile the new consensus with the values of the faith.  Looks like ND has decided, wisely, which side of that line it will fall.


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