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Obama: ‘Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.’

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/John Gress
President Barack Obama speaking during commencement ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Sunday.

For me, the Obama speech at Notre Dame was terrific, not because of what he said about the abortion issues — that was fine, if familiar — but because of the way he used it to illustrate how we should try to talk about issues across the ideological and partisan divide

“How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” Obama asked. And his answer, which certainly won’t make any of those controversies go away, was: “Open hearts, Open minds. Fair-minded words.”

It’s something to which I aspire on Black Ink. And I often fall short. But I want this to be a place where people who disagree with me can come and expect to be treated with respect.

The newspaper formula, in this regard, relies too heavily on a substitution of balance for fairness. But balance is not fairness, is no substitute for it, and, at its formulaic worst, makes matters worse. You can find people on both sides of an issue to give you self-serving, reductionist quotes. But two half-truths do not make a whole truth.

The trouble is, that while there is no substitute for fairness there is also no formula for producing it, nor any easy test for deciding whether one has achieved it, nor certainly any way to convince a skeptic that you have tried to be fair.

Anyway, I thought Obama, and the Notre Dame community by the way it handled the controversy over Obama’s appearance, gave a pretty good demonstration of how to go for this elusive but important goal.

I thought Obama was brave to go as far as he went. The next step, which I can’t really imagine him taking, would be to acknowledge that on the particular issue of abortion, one side views it as the legalized murder of innocents. It’s very hard to get to the level of reasonable compromise, or tolerance of opposing views, once that is plainly stated. It’s hard for those who disagree to state it that characterization of the other side’s viewpoint with respect. It’s hard for anyone to maintain an open mind and open heart, once they’ve accused of justifying murder. But is it reasonable to ask someone who sees the issue that way to stop saying so?

If you want the full text of the speech, with full video below it, Huff Post has it here.

Here’s an excerpt of the portion I’m talking about:

“We must find a way to live together as one human family.

It is this last challenge that I’d like to talk about today. For the major threats we face in the 21st century – whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease – do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.

Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.

Unfortunately, finding that common ground – recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” – is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man – our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education you have received is that you have had time to consider these wrongs in the world, and grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, men and women of principle and purpose, can be difficult.

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved.

The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that’s not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website – an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn’t change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that – when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.”


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Maury Landsman on 05/18/2009 - 11:17 am.

    I thought that he did acknowledge at one point that the gap was probably unbridgeable.

    “Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.”

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/18/2009 - 12:06 pm.

    Obama must know that when he talks about reducing the need for abortions he is talking about birth control and sex education, which are no more acceptable to the Catholic hierarchy than is abortion.

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/18/2009 - 12:54 pm.

    It was a great talk, and if people could open up their ears and their minds and hearts, they might appreciate what this man said. I find him even more admirable than ever (though I disagree with some of his specific stances).
    The hierarchy is quite different from the ordinary Catholic who must live in THIS world. The birth rate is no different for Catholics than non-Catholics, abortion rates are probably about the same, and those who favor stem cell research are about the same.
    Why does the hierarchy oppose sex education? I can’t think of any group that needs it more.

  4. Submitted by Larry Wall on 05/19/2009 - 12:19 am.


    You are correct. He did say that at some level there would never be mutual agreement on certain topics.

    But his point was that we should be able to live together in respect and harmony, even though we may have different opinions.

    I know most of us have friends and relatives (and even spouses) with whom we sometimes strongly disagree. But hopefully that does not keep us from mutual respect for one another, as well as maintaining extensive fondness for good friends, relatives, and spouses.

    Disagreements should not necessarily stir feelings of anger, anxiety, disgust, dismissal, or disrespect.

    The stirring of those feelings might just be the first step on a pathway that could ultimately lead to extreme reactionary behavior.

  5. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 05/19/2009 - 10:05 am.

    The elephant in the room is that the left has taken the issue of abortion out of the realm of public debate by creating a constitutional right to abortion. If Obama would be in support of putting this question back to the people to work a compromise, or state-by-state solutions on this issue, I would take his words more seriously. Until then, I am left to wonder whether he really means them.

  6. Submitted by John Roach on 05/19/2009 - 06:31 pm.

    Mr. Wolff,

    The “constitutional right” as you call it, was created by Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Chief Justice Warren Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell and Potter Stewart.

    “The left” had nothing to do with it. In fact, many liberal legal scholars have been highly critical of the legal reasoning behind Roe, including current Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Other prominent liberal legal minds who have criticized Blackmun’s reasoning include Archibald Cox, John Hart Ely, Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, Cass Sunstein, Kermit Roosevelt, Jeffrey Rosen, Michael Kinsley, William Saletan, Benjamin Wittes and even Blackmun’s clerk at the time, Edward Lazarus.

    It will certainly be impossible to find common ground on such a difficult issue if a basic factual foundation cannot be agreed on.

  7. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 05/20/2009 - 10:58 am.

    Mr. Roach–
    Great. Then I anticipate that President Obama will apoint a Justice that will overturn Roe.

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