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“Am I gagged or not?”

Responding to speech stifling in a cancel culture world


Critiques of “cancel culture” speech ­stifling often overflow with generalizations, but here’s a specific story. It’s not about calling out an individual: It’s about a life-and-death issue becoming out-of-bounds.

I received in June an invitation from Ben Fox, an internet entrepreneur with a new website on which hundreds of authors recommend their favorite books. Fox asked me to write about “the five best books on a topic you are passionate about. … The topic/theme is entirely up to you.”

Fox’s website now includes book lists on “African Cultures” and “American Civil War,” but one A-list topic was missing, so I inquired about recommending “The Best Books on Abortion.” Fox (or his assistant) replied, “That is a great topic.”

I then recommended five books: two by defenders of life, two on the other side who nevertheless provide evocative street-level detail, and one published in 1875 that describes women suffering from what we call today “post-abortion syndrome.” (Some abortion proponents say that’s a new, made-up ailment.)

Gag rules concerning abortion now exist on many college campuses.

Ben Fox responded at 3:30 p.m. on June 13, “Your approach to this topic is from a pro-life Christian point of view. … This topic is so wrapped up in politics and power and religion that frankly, it is one I am not sure how to handle. … I’d like to meditate on this a bit and what value we might bring to this topic through this platform.”

His meditation didn’t take long. Twelve hours and 15 minutes later, at 3:45 a.m., Fox wrote, “I talked to a few people last night to help get my thoughts in order. I do not believe my website can add anything to the subject that hasn’t already been said. I think that the politics of abortion has significantly hurt this country and should have remained purely a medical decision by doctors combined with the personal choice by individuals based on their beliefs and faith. I am not going to publish any book lists around abortion in relation to politics or religion. I hope you can respect my decision.”

I responded, “I do not respect your decision. You could ask an abortion proponent to write an alternative list and publish both. Ignoring the issue is cowardly.” Fox wrote back, “I do not believe my website can add anything to the subject that hasn’t already been said. In fact, I don’t think it merits debate.”

Fox’s dogmatic denial of the need for discussion may not be an outlier. In 2000 the average newspaper in the largest online newspaper archive, Newspapers.com, had 344 articles that included the words “abortion,” “fetus,” “unborn child,” or “unborn baby.” In 2020 the average number was 79, a 77 percent decline. Measured similarly, The New York Times did less sweeping under the rug: It registered only a 22 percent decline.

In 1836 Speaker of the House (and future president) James K. Polk of Tennessee refused to recognize Rep. John Quincy Adams when the former president rose to speak about slavery. Adams finally said, “I am aware there is a slave-holding speaker in the chair. … Mr. Speaker, am I gagged or not?”

That became a rallying cry for those with compassion for slaves. Northerners increasingly opposed cancel culture slaveholders. When Adams on Dec. 3, 1844, introduced a motion to rescind the gag rule, it passed 108 to 80. Adams remained in Congress for four years until he collapsed at his desk in 1848 and died in the Speaker’s office two days later. Rep. Abraham Lincoln was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.

Gag rules concerning abortion now exist on many college campuses: One closeted pro-life professor told me he dare not speak on the subject. Journalists who cover both sides often face extreme editing. Some editors have said they won’t print any readers’ letters on abortion.

Let’s minimize both ostracism of life defenders and ostrichlike ignoring of unborn children’s endangerment. How about making Dec. 3, 2021, an anti-gag day of remembrance?

—Note: See “A sorrowful history” in this issue for my five book recommendations. Expect to see many more articles in WORLD as the Supreme Court reenters the abortion debate this fall. We will not be gagged.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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NBrooks

Mr. Olasky, I love that you always strive to see the entire picture, not just one side of it ("I then recommended five books: two by defenders of life, two on the other side who nevertheless provide evocative street-level detail, and one published in 1875 that describes women suffering from what we call today 'post-abortion syndrome.' (Some abortion proponents say that’s a new, made-up ailment.")

Yes, you are gagged - you presented both sides, but that isn't enough. You must never mention the "Christian pro-life point of view." I loved the interview World published recently with John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast, in which he talked of his "theology of getting fired." He talked of Christians throughout history having to decide between life and death, keeping their job or being fired, and I add - being gagged; being disrespected, etc.

1 Pet 4:14: "If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you."

Gary Perilloux

Fully support the sentiment and conviction undergirding a day of remembrance, yet I pause on two counts: 1) muddling two causes — slavery and abortion — in the naming of the observance could create ideological chaos; and 2) an "anti-gag" reference, while entirely unintended here, could lead to unflattering inferences on a sensitive topic inherently linked to the human body. One could say the same of slavery, of course. On both issues, the truth should offend, and should correct injustice. Boldness is called for. We should not, however, entirely dismiss the reality of contemporary sensibilities and incivility on an inflammatory issue. The aim should be persuasive truth rather than corrosive truth. My suggestion: Go all-in on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision but also the Reagan-designated National Sanctity of Human Life Day. We're 18 months away from the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It's a milestone that will attract extraordinary attention. It's a litmus test for our nation. We should examine our country's first principles anew for a vision going forward. We should re-examine our priorities. What matters most? What should we address first? Hence, I think a popular campaign piggybacking on the Sanctity of Human Life Day should reflect the essential, ordinal importance of this one issue. Simply call it, "First." One can envision the symbology of the Jesus Movement, and the iconic possibilities. Individuals should be called on to study what happened in the world on their day of birth, and what difference their lives have made in the world since. Writing on my date of birth, Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You cannot meet a challenge till you know what the challenge is." The challenge: How to convince the Ben Foxes of the world that this matters most? Caitlin Flanagan wrestles with the truth in this essay from The Atlantic. Her personal journey led to the image of one inchoate infant, a single trimester young. First things first: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/the-things-we-cant-face/600769/

Ann Marshall

Christians should know, better than anyone else, that law cannot make us "good" or righteous. I never thought I would take seriously the idea of the courts staying out of the abortion question and leaving it with physicians but a conversation with a doctor has caused me to consider it. This pro-life Roman Catholic physician talked to me about the opportunity doctors have to counsel women who come seeking an abortion. They pointed out most doctors do not want to do abortions! The thrust of all their training is the preservation, not the destruction, of life. Having the courts and the force of law standing between the doctor and patient does not help the pro-life doctor to make a case to the mother, a case for sparing her baby's life, a case for hope. This needs to be thought about. The relationship between a frightened and unwillingly pregnant woman and her doctor is both intimate and fragile. What legal climate would most foster the open mind, the open heart, that every woman needs to have toward her unborn child?

DCal3000Ann Marshall

The question, though, is should it be legal for a child to be deliberately killed in the womb? One could legalize murder, generally, in hopes that people would then talk about their plans more and get counseling. Presumably, most counselors would oppose murder. But that would still mean the law falls short of what it is supposed to do - protect the lives of the innocent. The same is true of the unborn in the abortion debate. As long as abortion is generally legal, the law fails the unborn. Women can speak to their doctors whether or not abortion is legal.

SJS

Thanks for this. If there is any one issue that will bring about the justifiable judgment on our nation it is allowing and even codifying the killing of unborn babies. The travesty, the despicable evil, and the cries of the innocent reach to heaven and God is not silent. Who will speak up and when will we hear?

Personally I can't think about nor write about abortion without bringing up Proverbs 24: 10-12 as well as 31:8-9. Phil Keaggy used the latter passage with his simple but powerful song, "Little Ones".

Who will speak up for the little ones?
Helpless and half-abandoned
They've got the right to choose life
They don't want to lose
I've got to speak up, won't you?

Equal rights, equal time, for the unborn children
Their precious lives are on the line
How can we be rid of them?
Passing laws, passing out
Bills and new amendments
Pay the cost and turn about
And face the young defendants

Many come and many go
Conceived but not delivered
The toll is astronomical
How can we be indifferent

If my memory serves me right Adams similarly made the same proposal repeatedly. Your December 3 proposal is a good one. Though I wonder about its practicality with Roe v Wade march on Washington and related activities just 6 weeks or so later. But then why not?!