Penance & Albatross
And Roe and us and them.
There are a few work-related things that I am required by my conscience to do every Sunday.
As a side gig, I teach English (online) to two delightful Chinese children. I've been teaching them both since before the pandemic hit, or about a quarter of their lives so far. I've made several attempts over the years to walk away from teaching. Not because the kids aren't great. But because my idea for a device that generates more hours in days and fewer overwhelmed feelings in intermittently ambitious people is still but an idea. So I've limited my weekly teaching hours to two. On a typical Sunday, I teach one student in the morning and the other in the afternoon. In between, I try to fulfill my second requirement.
For my full-time job, I log on to my work email, which I've done my best not to think about since logging off on Friday evening Thai time. After a few deep breaths, I work through all of the news and opinion and analysis newsletters that have arrived in my inbox since Friday morning US time. Most Sundays, there are at least 80 of them waiting for me. Many of them with their fangs already out, thirsty for blood and conflict and clicks, and hungry for a tasty bite of their readers' well-being.
A related thing that happens most Sundays is I'm reminded of a line from the excellent George Saunders story "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz," in which the protagonist describes going from the job where he (barely) earns his livelihood to the more charitable one required of him by his conscience (and grief) as follows: "Then I go off to my real job, my penance, my albatross."
I love my students and am grateful for my day job. But the recurring sense I have every Sunday morning is that I'm off to serve a penance and contend with an albatross.
My penance is being fun and talkative and engaging when I'd rather just be my best contemplative self. My albatross comes in the form of those fanged narratives that saturate the news, a problem that is exacerbated whenever big bad news hits.
This Sunday + last Friday
On Friday last week, the big bad news was real for the majority of Americans. And I count myself among that majority. Personally, I think the overturning of Roe is a disgrace. But that only makes me want to understand the views of those who disagree with me more. Because I refuse to believe that they are a disgrace. And I reject the idea that I came across repeatedly on Sunday morning, which is that Americans are hopelessly divided into one side or the other on this issue. If you look beyond the polarizing narratives and at the actual data, that is simply not true. And no number of photos of people screaming into faces and megaphones will change that.
As long-running and complicated as the abortion debate is, what happened on Friday was an extreme move made and cheered on by an extreme few, and it does not reflect the nuanced views of most Americans.
That doesn't mean we're not at all divided on the issue. Obviously we are. But there is far more common ground than there sometimes seems. And that reality is being obscured by a false narrative that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Journalist Bari Weiss touched on this in her latest Common Sense post:
For the foreseeable future, I think states and institutions will continue to polarize. And it will be ugly, as Americans increasingly self-segregate and burrow deeper and deeper into their echo chambers. Not just online, but also in real life.
But this division will belie the reality of where most citizens actually fall on this particular issue.
While the extremes hog the microphone, polling consistently shows that most Americans fall somewhere in the middle on abortion—open to restrictions, but wanting it to remain legal in the first trimester. (Check out 538: What Americans Really Think About Abortion or WSJ: Upholding Roe v. Wade Is Supported by Most Americans.) The most comprehensive and detailed poll about where we fall on abortion comes from Pew and it’s worth your time:
Here’s the top takeaway from that Pew poll:
In an earlier piece posted just after the Court’s decision, Weiss wrote this:
We know that some Common Sense readers feel extremely gratified by Dobbs. We know that others are scared and worried about what other rights might be under threat. One of the things we value most about this community is that we have different views about highly divisive subjects. What we share is a commitment to civility, respect and honest conversation. Even—especially—in deeply emotional moments like this one.
There are those who claim that the time for nonviolence has passed. That desperate times call for desperate measures. That we are in a war and in a war the normal rules of politics must be suspended. These are the same people who turn a blind eye to—or justify—those threatening the lives of Supreme Court justices with whom they disagree. The same people who, in another time, justified violence against abortion providers.
We could not disagree more strongly with this view.
We know that it’s chic these days to write off virtues like civility and decency and humility and grace. We believe those things are the only way forward. That the only alternative to violence is persuasion and argument.
What can realistically be done in the near term to correct the imbalance on display in the Supreme Court, I do not know. But the more common ground we find, the more pressure on those in power to honor it, I reckon.
My hope is that the Common Sense community, as described above, will prove to be representative of the larger American community (eventually). My belief is that it will (eventually). But time will tell.
In any event, persuasion is unlikely to be achieved in any lasting or meaningful way through blunt force. As I see it, persuasion is not even really about convincing others that you’re right (or that they’re wrong). It’s about making a case for your views that is both strong and digestible enough to earn the accommodation of others. Other people don’t need to completely change their views. They just need to clear a little space for yours. And vice versa.
That’s where lasting and meaningful solutions lie. In the mutual accommodations that we make for each other. And we can all choose to make them every day.