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What I Learned from the Feminist Forum - December 2018

posted Dec 17, 2018, 1:18 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review   [ updated Dec 17, 2018, 1:23 PM ]

by James Dooley ‘20

Dialogue. A noble ideal. We participate in dialogue so that we can become better people. Here at Holy Cross, we pride ourselves on being able to address controversial topics boldly. In my three years as a student here, however, I’ve noticed that what is labeled as “dialogue” is all too often one voice in many different tones. In fact, it’s truly rare to hear an outright disagreement on campus. As a philosophy major, forbidden dinner topics – divisive politics, religion, and morality – are kind of my “thing”; I crave disagreement, controversial opinions, and “hot takes.” Here at Holy Cross, we seem to proudly find common ground in our aversion towards acknowledging a conflict of opinions. Like-minded folks merely get together and express things which they all already agree with. Agreement is fine, but it is most certainly not dialogue, and we shouldn’t pawn it off as part of our “open to growth” Jesuit identity. There can be no dialogue without dissenting voices, and here at Holy Cross, where we always remind ourselves that we are so divided, one must ask: where are the dissenting voices? Why is nobody arguing?

There can be no community-wide dialogue if we are not open to opposition; one’s mind must not be permanently fixed. In this way, the conversation begins within the individual. One must allow for the possibility of dissent and doubt within oneself.

A recent event made me aware of this. Holy Cross’s own Feminist Forum and Students for Life co-hosted a discussion of abortion and feminism, and the dialogue proved to be organic and engaging, a breath of fresh air unstifled by the presence of a moderator. I’m not quite sure if any common ground was found, and people’s opinions on abortion, in all likelihood, stayed the same. Nevertheless, this experience made me aware of something that I believe can be used to help cultivate authentic and engaging debate between legitimately opposing viewpoints.

It all started with some honest introspection. After the Students for Life-Feminist Forum discussion, I reflected on how I speak differently when addressing pro-life and pro-choice people despite talking about the same thing: my views on abortion. The change in my style of speech, dependent on whether my company is in agreement or opposition, forced me to wonder about my motives for speaking at all. What was I trying to hide that would make me change the way I presented my views?

Upon reflection, it turns out that a lot of my reasons aren’t as pure as I would like to admit. Take my pro-life views for example. I’m pro-life because I believe that the taking of innocent human life through abortion is bad, and I firmly believe that there are better ways to help women in pregnancy crises – ways that hold up our society’s commitment to equality and justice. This motivation to serve women and children is all well and good, and it’s something I’m proud to profess. However, if I look within, I know that my commitment to love is not the only thing that drives me. My pro-life views are all-too-often hijacked by less generous impulses. I realize that my pro-life views on social justice often draw power from hate, serving as an expression of my frustration and anger against those who espouse pro-choice views. Animosity is a powerful motivator.

We hardly ever let ourselves doubt our noble motives. All the hatred and the ill-will: those belong to the other side, we tell ourselves. We are in the right, they are in the wrong, and we make this known within the comfort of our group. Having had genuine conversations with well-intentioned people we disagree with, like the ones I had with the Feminist Forum, we start to doubt that our motives are as pure as we would let ourselves believe.

I urge you, if you are deeply committed to something, to critically examine what drives your conviction. Identify the worst possible reason for holding your particular view, then go ahead and assume that some strain of that is what drives you to be so passionate about your specific cause. Contend with that possibility. Let it scare the hell out of you. We at a Jesuit Catholic school have a duty to do this. After all, we are “all about” discernment. These are forces that drive us, so let’s get to know them.

Here’s an exercise: Go ahead and assume that the side you oppose is correct in their caricature of you.

For example:
Staunch capitalist? – assume you are motivated by neglect for the poor, believing that they ought to suffer.
Budding socialist? – assume that you don’t really care about the poor – you just hate and envy the rich.
Pro-life? – assume you are motivated by the thrill you get from imposing your morals on others.
Pro-choice? – assume your commitment to abortion-rights stems not from a desire to help women in crisis pregnancies but rather from a disdain for the responsibility implicit in unsafe sex.


Why do this? After all, the mere questioning of personal motives in no way proves or disproves the righteousness or depravity of any particular cause. In this way, I’m not saying that you should go ahead and stop fighting for what you are passionate about. As a human, to some degree your motives are inevitably distorted. That’s just the situation we find ourselves in. Instead, this exercise is meant to foster a very necessary sense of self-doubt. The first step towards becoming a good human being is the knowledge that you are not a good human being. Through getting to know the real identity which drives you, you will be better prepared to cultivate the good and contend with the bad within you. Don’t be naïve, assuming that you are innocent and entirely justified; you are not an angel, and neither are your compatriots in your particular cause. At present, we all inhabit a place somewhere between heaven and hell. From this basic understanding, then, go forth and stand for what you stand for, but do so continually examining your motives. Be vigilant and skeptical of the forces that drive you.

The practice of assuming the worst of yourself – fostering self-doubt – is also the very virtue required to approach dialogue with others: humility. If you want to become a better person and make the world a better place, you need to face the reality of your potential to be motivated by evil.  Assuming that the views you are most passionate and proud to hold are – in part – driven by the worst motives, you will become a more morally aware person. This, in turn, will make you much more capable of dealing with the division that besets our school, community, and nation.