Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pride and Shame

It was a mixed bag today.

As I walked to work this morning, I thought about President's Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress that I watched on television last night. I recalled with a slight smile how he had once again moved me to tears with the power of his words and the skill with which he delivers them, wondering how long it would be before I could listen to him speak without becoming emotional. Perhaps never, but that would be no loss, certainly for I felt the power of his optimism and strength in my own stride across campus in the cool early morning sunlight. I was proud of him and of the people who call themselves Americans, because I believe, even as Gov. Jindal (author of the Republican response to the President's speech) does in his 'loyal' opposition, that we "Americans can do anything".

Then I turned the corner.

Down the street, no closer than a thousand feet away, I saw it. I couldn't help but see it. it was a graphic color image of a bloodied aborted fetus, at least four to six feet tall and two feet wide, not to be missed nor mistaken for anything else. Even though I've seen this before and I knew how hard it is to deal with it, I found myself stunned, blindsided and taken advantage of, all in the instant that I perceived that first, most painfully obvious image.

The photograph was mounted on a large framework, which towered over the street and was visible from two blocks away between the innocent and benevolent trees. It is part of a display that some anti-abortion group has brought to the campus for the past several years. The first time they came, they set up on the West Mall, and the event was marred by protests and a lot of angry shouting across a hastily constructed barrier. Subsequently, the display (though threatened with being banned, it was deemed protected speech) was moved to the street (Speedway) in front of Gregory Gym, surrounded by fence and given police protection. Today, they were back, this time still on Speedway, but now dominating the intersection with the East Mall.

I have two basic problems with the display. First of all, I find the graphic imagery to be unnecessarily offensive and insensitive to the people who were forced to see it. Make no mistake, these images were meant to ambush viewers with an inescapable presence. The very size and color of the pictures meant they were impossible to avoid seeing from as far as two blocks away. In response to past protests to this issue, they had put up tiny little signs that read "Warning! Graphic Images Ahead", but predictably, they came far too late for any passerby to avoid the sight of violence. Plus, the fact that the display (with barricades) took up the entire intersection meant that some of us were literally forced to pass by it in order to get to work or class.

I doubt that these same individuals would put up massive pictures of genitalia or graphic images of dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq, but somehow they feel that the impact of the images (which they readily acknowledge is drastic) is justified, and that the rules of common decency and respect for others therefore do not apply this bit of 'protected speech'.

Or, it would seem, these simple rules (do unto others; love thy neighbor) must be set aside in this admittedly extreme case. Either way, the unsuspecting sensibilities of good and decent people--even those, who, like me, are personally opposed abortion but respect the right to choose--were callously disregarded by the people who erected this egregiously offensive display.

Secondly, I find this type of behavior to be shameful. There is no other word for it. All day I thought about it and this is the best I can come up with for now. I believe it is shameful because the act of displaying disturbing imagery in this way is so very divisive.

I realize that this--abortion--may be one of those issues that people on either side feel so very deeply about that there may be no way nor, for that matter, no real need to agree upon it. Nevertheless, I am still optimistic enough to believe that even if we cannot agree on anything, we can at least agree to stop arguing about the things on which we know we will never agree. Oh! There it is, another one of those rules that are so simple they are now simply cliche: we must agree to disagree.

We must do more than that, though. We must agree to stop hurting and insulting each other unnecessarily. I mean really. This display made me feel as if I can't and shouldn't say anything, for fear of an irrational confrontation (likely on my part, unfortunately). I don't want to feel this way, but I am forced to, having been unexpectedly confronted by this display. It has me feeling bad even now, with no way to express it.

I couldn't bring myself to approach the display, let alone talk to the people who put it up. I guess that were I to have words with someone who felt it necessary to insult me in so brazen a manner without warning, I feel I would be only further legitimizing their position with a response. Simply said, I truly believe that there is no civilized response to this type of behavior other than shame.

So, as I walked away, I was ashamed for them, ashamed for people in general, ashamed of myself. After all, I did nothing, said nothing. Instead, I turned my head and sucked in my breath. I don't feel too good about that, for sure. Coming so close on the heels of my own personal re-examination, I guess still find it hard to bring myself to confront those whose behavior I think has crossed the line of decency and respect for others. Yet, why didn't I speak up?

This is something I need to change. I must not only find my voice, but I must use it. Somehow, some way, I need to find an outlet--a real outlet--for these feelings of pride and find work--real work--for my hands to erase these feelings of shame from my heart.

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