An exercise in civil dialogue on the Plaza

Anna MitchellLast week the annual game of avoiding the plaza at all costs commenced. Campus was visited once more by the pro-life group Justice for All, exhibiting massive banners covered with photos and information about abortions.

The displays are inflammatory, disturbing, covered in stomach-churning images that are debatably falsified and indisputably upsetting. It’s almost laughable that they even bother posting warning signs proclaiming “CAUTION: GRAPHIC IMAGES AHEAD.” By the time you are close enough to read the warning, you can’t miss the posters.

After years of circumnavigating around the display, last week I did something I did not ever expect to do: I charged through the plaza and took a closer look.

I began by reading the “free speech walls,” which were posters with markers where students could leave their comments. It was fascinating to see what was being said by fellow students. A few comments that stuck in my mind were “No uterus, no opinion” and “Funny how most the people protesting are men with no right to an opinion about women’s health.”

While reading the comments, a gentleman timidly approached me and asked if I had any opinions on the matter.

“I have quite a few, but for now I’m just reading” I replied.

He asked if I was willing to share my opinions with him. So, for the second time I went against my better judgment: I shared my thoughts.

And I was absolutely surprised by how respectful the dialogue was. I was not once argued with or yelled at. Instead, I was asked if I was willing to talk about what I thought, and after granting permission the only challenge I received was to defend why I believed what I believed. It was a good conversation about the topic, and why he was there protesting.

Then I moved forward. I read the posters; I tried (unsuccessfully) not to cringe at the images and the numbers presented. I then got to the table asking if abortion should remain legal, with a pad to write a comment of “YES” and one to say “NO.” I picked up a pen to share my words, and was asked by another gentleman if I was willing to share my opinions about the matter.

So I did. This led to a meaningful conversation about what I believed, what he believed, why we believed these things. And not just about abortion: I wound up deep in conversation about my beliefs regarding religion, social activism and social issues. Before I knew it, it had been two hours of dialogues with a handful of both protestors and students alike.

I was surprised at how much I gained from the quality of those discussions. While my opinions about abortion were probably not changed, they were good discussions to have. And I didn’t even realize how much I needed to have them.

Abortion is a topic most of us shy away from discussing. Often I hear “I don’t really have an opinion one way or another” or comments about avoiding confrontation. And that apprehension is understandable – abortion is probably the most complicated political issue I can think of.

Do I approve of the JFA’s methods founded in such negative techniques? I absolutely, 100 percent do not. It is offensive, tasteless, and has the potential to be harmful to students — women who undergo abortions can struggle with their decision and often suffer from trauma, requiring counseling and care that they may or may not be receiving.

If a post-abortive student is required to cross through the plaza and see these images, they could evoke a seriously harmful emotional response. Harming individuals in order to make a point is not ethical.

But if their purpose is to get people talking about the issue, then JFA is rhetorically successful with their display. Even if it is upsetting.

While I hope that their visit next year takes a more appropriate approach, I am glad someone is getting the dialogue going.

Anna Mitchell is a junior liberal arts major. Her columns appear Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.