On communicating the pro-life message

Last Wednesday, I let off a bit of steam, expressing my frustration with extremism and ad hominem attacks. Danny responded with some relevant examples from the health care debate south of the border.

I’d like to add two more thoughts.

I had the privilege of listening to Archbishop Thomas Collins speak last Friday at a conference on Evangelization in the Media. Now, he was speaking about evangelization of the faith, but these comments really apply to all sorts of communication, especially in terms of spreading the pro-life message. He referenced Aristotle to say that communication is always ethos, pathos, then logos, and then brilliantly put it into the vernacular as “build a bridge (ethos), touch the heart (pathos), then deliver the message (logos).”

Note that the order is important. You can’t touch the heart without first building a bridge, and you can’t effectively deliver the message without first touching the heart. Many times, when we hear harsh admonitions from the pro-life movement, we’ve got the logos absolutely right. (On the other hand, the pro-choice movement may sometimes have ethos or pathos, without the logos.) It’s essential that we denounce evil. But how we denounce it is also important, because if we don’t first build a bridge and touch the heart, the people who need to hear the message most (i.e. those who aren’t already pro-life) won’t be listening.

Which leads me to my second point… I think we’ve been doing a great job on campus this year in raising public awareness about the abortion issue, with our demonstration in November, and a couple mini-demonstrations these past few weeks. We’re almost always confronted by a counter-demonstration (we pretty much set the schedule for that group, which seems to be made up of a lot of non-students…), but since we’ve moved onto the public sidewalks, I’ve noticed a tendency developing that I believe we need to improve on.

On the one hand, we’ve had a lot of comments from people that they welcome the opportunity to see both sides out on the same street corner and talk with both of us, and this is the dialogue we’re trying to promote. But… I’m beginning to feel like, sometimes, we get too caught up with our friends-holding-slightly-different-signs. The temptation is to address our message to them, as if we’re competing with them. We end up, with some of our signs, using slogans that are very confusing at first to the average passer-by who isn’t heavily involved in the debate, and is trying to tell them apart from the signs being held by counter-protesters.

Now, we’ve recognized this recently and have tried to select a mixture of signs so that our message comes across more clearly. Overall, I think we’ve done a good job. But we need to be careful to build that bridge towards the people in the middle of the road (well, sidewalk), and not to become hopelessly reactionary like our pro-choice friends who rely on us to schedule their events. They are there to respond to us, but we must remember that we’re there to speak to other students on campus, especially those who are not usually considering the abortion issue. We need to make sure we’re not just building a bridge to the other side of the sidewalk, so that most people walk right underneath it.

Ethos, pathos, then logos. Build a bridge, touch the heart, deliver the message—in that order. I think we’re doing a good job, but let’s do even better by constantly keeping this ancient advice in mind.

(As a sidenote, our demonstrations focus on a particular ethos—we’re trying to show the injustice of abortion to get people talking and thinking about it. Other public lectures, on the other hand, have a different ethos, as do our other activities, such as blogging, or volunteering at Aid to Women, etc… Different bridges for different contents and different people.)

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