At Planned Parenthood meetings they tell you not to share your location on social media. While the leaders at the meeting I went to at the Columbus City Library in downtown Columbus, Ohio on February 28th didn’t explicitly tell us why, I can guess: fear of harassment, based on moral accusations. I was surprised. I was also disappointed. Not because I wanted to share my location (I don’t know anyone who cares that much what I’m doing on a Wednesday night), but because there should be no reason for me not to share it.
Planned Parenthood is highly controversial because they receive government money and provide abortion services, although the money does not go towards the provision of those services. The debate is, understandably, heated, and protests can result in sometimes violent clashes between pro- and anti-Planned Parenthood groups.
I knew all this before going to the meeting. As I expected, there was nobody protesting the Central Ohio Planned Parenthood Action Forum. Participants just signed in, grabbed a snack, and sat down to chat with other attendees before the meeting began. At which point, the people in charge of running the meeting introduced themselves and went over the rules; including the request that we not share our location on social media during the meeting.
So the leaders of the meeting didn’t want it to be interrupted by protesters. I can’t blame them; it’s certainly easier to run a meeting and interact with other group members without a protest going on around you, no matter how few the protesters might be. At first I was intrigued that they thought someone might see my location at a planned parenthood meeting and on the spot decide to protest the meeting. What dedication, to scrap one’s Wednesday night plans on such short notice. Not to mention the organization it would require to put together a protest and arrive at the location before the meeting was over. I wondered if people would really do that. I decided if they wouldn’t, Planned Parenthood probably wouldn’t waste time telling us not to share our location. So then I wondered: why would someone be willing to drop what they’re doing, drive downtown, and yell at thirty strangers in a library, just because they spotted my location on Facebook?
The answer, or part of it, can be found in Jan Werner Muller’s book What is Populism, which identifies one key aspect of populism, and one that makes it especially dangerous to democracy: its appeal to a sense of morality. Populism, he says, is a moralistic imagination of politics, which frames one side of a political divide as morally united and the other as corrupt and amoral.
The operation of planned parenthood is a political issue. But it also has become a moral issue, with each side painting the other as an enemy of the public. The Planned Parenthood staff at the meeting wasn’t concerned that some anti-abortion protester would show up and calmly try to convince us that funding Planned Parenthood is not in the best interest of the country. They didn’t worry that he might listen to the group members, understand their perspective, and use statistics and empathy to try to change our minds.
The best case scenario would be protesters being loud and disruptive, which (setting aside that they would be breaking the most basic of library rules) they have every right to do, and may even be encouraged, as a way of expressing their political ideals. But this scenario is not terribly likely. More likely, protesters would, if they came, hurl moral accusations and offensive, antagonistic insults attacking the character of the pro-Planned Parenthood crowd. Worse still, they might resort to personal attacks on specific members of the group, questioning their moral integrity. Finally, they may even result to violence, against what they see as enemies of good and right.
This tendency of people today, to attack the moral character of the political opposition, rather than just the perceived quality of their policy proposals, is what is driving Americans apart. We are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, and a substantial factor in this division is people’s assumption that political disagreement translates into a moral incongruity.
That’s why Planned Parenthood doesn’t want attendees sharing the locations of their meetings wile they’re going on. It’s no longer about political differences, it’s become an issue of morality: who’s right and who’s objectively and morally wrong. Under such conditions, compromise is impossible: it requires both respect and understanding for the other side. Without these things, democracy can break down.
Democracy requires not just that the majority make decisions: it also requires protections for the minority. It requires recognition that differences in opinion do not make people morally inferior, and understanding that just because a majority votes for one political party, this does not mean that the other is wrong. It just means they have less people, for now.
I wish I could have shared my location at that Planned Parenthood meeting. I wouldn’t have. But being allowed to would mean that there was no danger that we might be accused of moral indecency for our political beliefs. And that’s the way it should be.
**Photo Credit Freestocks.org, “Black Microphone”**