There are two ways you can end a war: you can either destroy the enemy, or you can convert the enemy. In almost every way, the former will be easier, faster, and more obvious. The latter is rarely chosen by culture warriors for one reason: within the context of cultures wars, it is nearly impossible.
The culture wars are, by their nature, impersonal. They deal with movements and ideologies. Like all wars, they involve leaders constrained by their followers and followers constrained by their peers. Individual persons are obscured by the sides they take and the ways their enemies construe those sides. The question, “Whose side are you on?” always prevails over the question, “Who are you?” So, when you’re a culture warrior, you respond to sides and not persons.
Being a culture warrior gives you a skewed view of what questions are important. The most common question is: “Why is the other side wrong?” This is an important question, but it obscures another, perhaps more fundamental question: “Why do the people on the other side believe what they believe?” This question isn’t and can’t be asked in the culture wars, because it is almost always a question for persons.
I realized this in the midst of pro-life activism.
If you’re pro-life, you believe that a human being is a human being from the moment of conception and that this human being is worthy and deserving of protection. Even if you’re not pro-life, you can understand the seriousness of this position. Under such a view, the elective taking of an unborn human life is of the same moral gravity as the elective taking of any human life. So the question that the pro-life culture warriors have traditionally asked is: “Why is abortion wrong?” And the answer is that elective abortion is the killing of a human life. Of course, this question and its corresponding answer have been found to be rather ineffective when they encounter an actual woman considering an abortion.
Paul Swope has noted how pro-lifers will be more effective in their work if they “reframe the issue”, responding to the actual concerns of women, rather than the sole fact that abortion ends a human life. Women don’t choose to have abortions due to a simple ignorance that abortion ends a human life. If we actually listen to these women, we learn that their concerns are much more complex. Many women know they are killing a baby, and they still choose abortion.
Given this, it shouldn’t be surprising that, as Swope writes, the “traditional [pro-life] approach has had so little effect.” It asks and answers the wrong question. So the successful parts of the pro-life movement have “reframed the issue”, taken on a new image, and learned important things that could only be learned from “the other side”. In this way, these pro-lifers have ceased being culture warriors; they’re something much more akin to Christians, seeking the conversions of the others by appealing to what is best and most needed in them. These pro-lifers have also ceased to see “pro-choicers” and started to see men and women.
This reframing can be awkward for culture warriors, especially those committed to a certain old-school culture war orthodoxy, the orthodoxy that insists that a culture war can only be won if the other side loses. The goals of culture war movements are often substituted for their means: opposing the enemy becomes primary, and winning the war becomes secondary.
But if we believe that classic teaching of Socrates, that to commit evil is worse than to suffer evil, then we realize that those on “the other side” are the victims, rather than the enemy. So the real war becomes a war with ourselves: do we seek conversion or destruction?