Some 10 years ago, when I was a research fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a colleague approached me with a perplexing problem.
Her research project involved analyzing what visitors wrote on comment cards upon leaving the museum’s permanent exhibition. The cards almost uniformly praised the experience as deeply moving, but a small number complained of there being too much sex. We determined that what some people found objectionable was not actual sex but the nakedness of concentration camp bodies depicted in Army footage shot during liberation and screened on TV monitors that even then were positioned in a way that most small children would not be able to see.
Today, IPFW Students for Life, Allen County Right to Life and Indiana Right to Life all appear to make the same profound lapse in judgment as that handful of patrons did, unmoved by the totality of their encounter with history. Deeply offended by an IPFW Women’s Studies program commemorating women’s reproductive rights 40 years after Roe vs. Wade, these local anti-abortion groups have unilaterally decided that any commemoration must indeed be synonymous with celebration.
Just as a handful of museum patrons could go through a permanent exhibition detailing the events leading up to the industrialized slaughter of millions of people and retain only outraged judgment at fleeting nudity, today’s anti-abortion groups so steadfastly cling to imposing a narrow and rigid worldview on the rest of us that they cannot even distinguish between a commemoration and a celebration.
We commemorate events all the time that in no way constitute a celebration. Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins the evening of April 7, and neither it nor the museum exists to celebrate the Holocaust. Memorial Day does not celebrate war or the deaths that resulted from service in the armed forces. The anniversary of 9/11 does not celebrate what al Qaida did.
Certainly, within the framework of commemoration, there is space to celebrate certain aspects of what that commemoration helps us to remember. The Holocaust Museum commemorates not just industrialized slaughter or the effects of unchecked, state-sponsored race prejudice. It also celebrates the courage, resistance, and resourcefulness of individuals who found themselves caught within the grip of the Nazi machinery. For many, Memorial Day celebrates the tremendous sacrifice that individuals made in the service of their country. And yes, we celebrate women’s rights, not just because those rights include the right to an abortion, but because for countless women and men the alternative – being denied basic human rights – has proven so much worse.
Not a single event at IPFW this month celebrates abortion, but there are events that celebrate the entirely legal right to an abortion. And yes, we celebrate rights all the time, even when the exercise of those rights results in something some may find deeply offensive, physically or emotionally painful, or coming at great personal cost. One also might find offensive that anti-abortion groups attempt to rigidly and dogmatically impose their narrow worldview on everyone else. But let us celebrate their right to express public displeasure, even if we must tolerate their colossal failure in perspective to distinguish between things such as a commemoration and a celebration.
As a university community, we should welcome a vigorous exchange of diverse viewpoints. But we also should be vigilant when some viewpoints fail, intentionally or not, to make important distinctions in the service of a particularly narrow agenda. We value free and open exchange, not because every idea is intrinsically and equally valid, but because in that free and open exchange, good ideas emerge triumphant based on their own internal merits.
In addition to a catastrophic failure to distinguish between a commemoration and a celebration, the objections of anti-abortion groups profoundly misconstrue the very rights of expression they continue to enjoy. Campus environments such as IPFW welcome diverse viewpoints not because everyone has a right to an opinion but because the best ideas spring forth from the scrutiny of vigorous open debate and argument. If anti-abortion groups have an argument to make about women’s reproductive choice, then they should make the best one they have. If their arguments are so weak and enfeebled that they cannot offer even a single argument that could withstand a divergent viewpoint, if they can only take deep offense and call upon IPFW to suppress arguments to which these groups are simply opposed, then I can only pity the utter vacuousness of their position.
Within a commemoration, surely there is room for both remembrance as well as celebration. Surely there is room for reasoned differences on the significance of Roe vs. Wade. And just as surely as there is a difference between sex and nakedness, there is a better anti-abortion argument than one that smugly takes deep offense just because their advocates say so.