A woman contemplates an image of her developing unborn child.
Walking out from Trinity College one evening this week, I stumbled across a group of campaigners from the Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (ICBR). They were holding a series of posters portraying babies moments after they had been aborted. The images, even for many pro-life people, were quite explicit and even grotesque (see link below).
I noticed that some people from a pro-life society in the university started chatting to them. “You know you are actually causing more harm than good to the pro-life movement right?” they asked them. It interested me to see what ICBR’s reaction to this would be. As the conversation developed, the ICBR campaigners started to challenge the same Trinity students to a debate, arguing that they should not consider themselves truly pro-life if they disagreed with their canvassing methods. In the end, the students from the society left them on their own and the same canvassers were back again outside campus the following day.
This whole encounter led me to question the real impact which groups like the ICBR, often labelled as extremists, might have on the common citizen.
When public discourse is delicate, and people tend only to focus on the extremism found on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, I draw comfort from a famous quotation from Edmund Burke:
“In this crisis I must hold my tongue, or I must speak with freedom. Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: but, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.”
It is the perfect argument to make against the in-your-face approach used by certain political groups and the perfect way for serious conservative movements to speak the truth moderately and strongly.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “to be economical with the truth” (to be partially or wholly untruthful; to deliberately mislead; to misrepresent the facts of a matter) is completely at odds with Burke’s idea of an “economy of truth.”
What Burke meant by this was that delivering out one’s claims of truth gradually (“with measure”) would give the person more time to remain credible in the public debate and to speak for a longer period as a consequence.
In the case of a politician, the fewer statements of truth said would mean a lesser probability there would be of him offending people with unpleasantly true facts. Similarly though, if a politician started to convince people with smaller truths about a bigger issue, there would be a higher probability of the public agreeing with him or her when the time came to reveal the bigger truth.
To use a contemporary example, Donald Trump may know quite a lot about economics when it comes to investments, tariffs, and taxes, and even that is questionable, but one of the things he certainly lacks is knowledge in the field of “truth economics.” I say this not because he is often accused of lying. That is irrelevant to this argument. Whether he lies or not, the problem with Trump when we think about Burke’s idea is that he is not interested in gradually convincing more people that a certain policy, like building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., could be the most appropriate manner to tackle a serious issue. Instead of carefully delivering smaller claims of truth in order to convince a majority of the public on this topic, he goes for the big “BUILD THE WALL!” deal, which for him is the bigger truth.
This is where we, the public, come in. The blame for mishandling the “economy of truth” should not lie entirely on the politician. Just as the consumer can and should go beyond the advertising and marketing (which may be in-your-face or manipulative) when he or she is thinking on buying a product, the citizen has the responsibility of going beyond the rhetoric of politicians or canvassing groups when he or she is thinking on taking a certain political position.
In other words, the public has the responsibility of looking for the truth themselves and of not being fooled by extremists or manipulators on both sides of the political debate. This is why in Trump’s case, there are many people who agree with his ideas but don’t necessarily like the way he presents them, precisely because they know that a lot of indecisive people will not be won over to their side with such rhetoric, even if what he says is ultimately true.
A similar scenario happens in the abortion debate when you get groups like the ICBR. Many pro-life people would ultimately agree with their belief that abortion is inherently wrong and that it is something very violent indeed, but they know that there are a lot of people out there that will not be won over to their same side with the graphic images that ICBR use. They have ignored the careful deliverance of smaller truths and opted instead to share their big and unappealing truth.
On their Facebook page, I noticed a lot of phrases that accompanied their images and posts. One of them was a quote by Peter Hitchens which caught my attention:
“Abortion is the only event that modern liberals think too violent and obscene to portray on TV. This is not because they are squeamish or prudish. It is because if people knew what abortion really looked like, it would destroy their pretence that it is a civilised answer to the problem of what to do about unwanted babies.”
The people in ICBR see this quote as an argument that justifies their methods, yet they fail to recognise the possibility that Hitchens’ words might be more of a challenging invitation for liberals to look at these things for themselves, rather than an invitation for conservatives to rub the obscenity and violence of an abortion in other people’s faces.
In the end, it should all come back to the truth. Granted, the images which ICBR use for their posters are not fake. They are real, horrible, and tragic. The possibility also exists that they might convince a couple of individuals. But when we live in a society that has arguably rejected truth in many areas of life or when you have people in society that genuinely do not know where to find it, it would be unwise to present the truth as something purely ugly or evil. In this particular case, showing a 12-week old unborn baby alive is much more attractive than showing a torn apart dead baby.
In the same line of thought to Burke, John Henry Newman advocated for a “cautious dispensation of the truth, after the manner of a discreet and vigilant steward.” Therefore, the great thing about the “economy of truth” should not only lie in the aspect of its quantity, but also in its quality. How much would our public debate benefit if we worried much more about presenting the beauty of our side rather than showing the alternative’s ugliness? I will leave that for you to decide.
* Click here to see all of the ICBR images and posters (I did warn the reader of the explicitness and ugliness of some of these photos). Or else, in line with the article’s argument, click here to see a couple of more attractive images during the foetal development of the baby.
Guillermo Dillon is the editor of The Burkean Journal, a recently established online political and cultural magazine in Ireland that promotes conservative thought and ideas. This article is republished with his permission.