A young woman sat with her arms crossed and lips pursed while shooting me a look that must have been intended to vaporize me on the spot.
I was talking to her and some of her fellow students about abortion and the pro-life position, and it clearly made her unhappy. She finally raised her hand and the whole room seemed to gird their loins for what was about to come.
I asked her, “Did you have a question or comment?”
She rather forcefully said, “I am offended that you would come here and say these things.”
My response was as follows:
OK, let’s talk about that for minute. I have presented an argument in support of the position that abortion is objectively wrong because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. The lines of evidence that I appealed to were scientific (the identity of the unborn as a human life from fertilization) and philosophical (human beings have value by virtue of what they are, not what they can do or how I feel about them).
I also understand that hearing people argue for views you disagree with can be unpleasant. It bothers you to hear someone say you are wrong, just like it bothers anyone, including me. I can get really irritated over people disagreeing with me about trivial things. It is natural to have emotional responses to discussions about all sorts of things, but especially about something as objectively important as abortion.
Anytime someone disagrees with us and offers arguments for their position, there are only a few options open to us in response.
1. We can quietly listen, consider their views, weigh the counterarguments and decide they were wrong.
2. We can listen, consider, weigh, then decide we are wrong and adjust our beliefs appropriately.
3. We can listen, consider, weigh and then decide that we simply lack sufficient information to come down on one side or the other.
4. We can offer counterarguments on the spot, addressing the specific lines of evidence offered.
All of those are perfectly appropriate. There are certainly counterarguments to everything that I have said today, offered by genuinely brilliant people at an academic and sophisticated level. I’ve read them and learned from them, though I obviously found them less than persuasive in the end. I encourage you to find and read them, and would be happy to point you in the right direction.
But when you say that you are offended, all that you are doing is telling us how you are emotionally responding to what I am saying. I already conceded that we all struggle with our emotions in this kind of conversation, both in my original talk and just a moment ago, so you aren’t adding anything to the discussion that addresses the substance of what was argued.
Finally, and I’m not saying you are doing this, but when some people say they are offended, what they are really saying is that I’m upsetting them so I ought to stop talking about abortion. I reject that altogether.
No one has a right not to be offended. Sometimes there are questions of such importance that we are compelled to engage in public discussion, knowing that it will be upsetting to do so.
Imagine how you would feel if someone suggested that you shouldn’t be allowed to argue for positions with which they disagree simply because they are incapable of controlling their emotions.