Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?
The phenomenon Lewis is describing here isn’t really any more prevalent among pro-lifers than anyone else: it’s kind of a human universal. But it’s certainly not any less prevalent among pro-lifers than it is elsewhere – and if indulged in it can be devastating for good conversations about abortion.
Which of us isn’t tempted to an attitude like the one Lewis describes when we hear about the behaviour of a pro-choice politician like Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam, who in 2019 admitted to wearing blackface at college parties in the 1980s. Northam was also accused of being the person standing arm-in-arm with someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume in this photo. He first admitted to the charge, and then denied it: an investigation failed to determine whether the person in the photo was him (the blackface makes it difficult). Northam is ridiculous and his ‘Michael Jackson’ costume completely offensive, whether or not he appeared in the photo with the Ku Klux Kostumer.
Now, Northam is the same man who supported and signed legislation allowing extremely late abortions, and made some very odd comments which could easily be read as saying that babies with life-limiting conditions who were delivered alive could be killed after a ‘discussion’ between a woman and her doctor. In fact, he made the comments just a few days before the blackface photo came to light. Given this, I found myself wanting him to be the man in the photo. It wasn’t just that I wanted him to face accountability for his actions if he was in it. On some level, because of the phenomenon Lewis describes, I wanted this man who I knew had done some terrible things to have done other bad things as well. I actually wanted him to be villainous in other ways, too.
Northam’s case is extreme, but it’s easy to fall into a similar pattern of thought. One of the most common example is the reverse of Lewis’s case: a reluctance to acknowledge or admit when a pro-choice politician does something good. A lot of pro-lifers would be very reluctant to offer any praise to Joe Biden for his recent child tax credit scheme, even though it (apart from anything else) acts as a real and substantial disincentive to abortion.
There is, of course, an understandable reason for this apart from Lewis’s “sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible”: there’s a worry about legitimising support for pro-choice political leaders like Biden, and by extension their pro-choice policies. Does praising a pro-choice politician for a ‘normal’ good policy make support for abortion seem more like one more issue and less like a critical matter of human rights? It’s a real and important question. But it’s rare that our consideration of questions like this goes completely unmixed with the phenomenon Lewis describes.
Lewis’s point is that thinking like this is bad for your character: we should want the world to be better, not worse, and be pleased to find out that that’s the case. But it also makes it harder to have good conversations with people who disagree with us. When we give in to the impulse to be pleased when people we disagree with are worse rather than better, we come across as tribal and cynical. We signal to pro-choice people that we regard them, not as people mistaken about an important human rights question, but as enemies whose every fault will be seized on and sneered at. As pro-lifers know when the same thing happens in reverse, it’s very hard to have a conversation with someone who sees you that way.