Commentary Religion

Why We Need to Keep Countering Extremists’ Lies with Facts

Amanda Marcotte

When accumulated in one place, the number of lies the religious right tells about human sexuality and gender roles is dizzying.  But countering their lies with facts, while important, is more complex than simply insisting on the facts. 

I was lucky enough to spend my holiday weekend in Minneapolis, attending CONvergence at the behest of the lovely ladies of Skepchick.  I was invited to speak on panels about science, sexuality, and fighting the religious right on two separate panels.  The theme that emerged from the panels, which featured a sprinkling of scientists and activists in addition to my journalist self, could be summed up as, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own set of facts.”  Over and over again, the concern arose that lies and misinformation are becoming a more common feature in our public discourse, and the mainstream media was guilty of publicizing lies, pseudo-science, and misinformation as if it were facts on level with actually, you know, facts. This is true when the media publishes poorly constructed studies (with small sample sizes, no controls, conclusions  drawn that the evidence doesn’t actually demonstrate, or all of the above) that “prove” cultural stereotypes about men and women, or when the media reports scientific misinformation concocted by the religious right in order to sow confusion about reproductive rights.

Communications experts and psychologists will tell you that facts matter less in a debate than ideologies, prejudices, and the personal need to believe whatever it is you’re arguing for.  And it’s definitely true that we’re not going to be converting many anti-choicers with insistence on facts; their beliefs about reproductive rights are rooted in a mish-mash of misogyny and sexual hysteria that is impervious to facts. But does this mean facts don’t matter? Absolutely not,  The fact that the religious right is willing to make up lies about abortion and contraception demonstrates that they very much believe facts matter. If facts didn’t matter, they wouldn’t bother lying about them. 

When I sat on a panel and listed the number of lies about reproductive health promoted by the religious right to advance their agenda, I had to finally cut myself off before I went on too long and overwhelmed the audience: that abortion causes breast cancer, that abortion causes depression, that condoms don’t protect against HIV, that contraception doesn’t work, that pro-choice organizations are involved in a conspiracy to promote ineffective contraception to discourage abstinence and drive up the abortion rate, and even that a baby was born clutching an IUD. (Big laugh from the audience with that one.)  I didn’t even have time to talk about the more complex and esoteric lies, such as the claim that women (and only women) get dulled to the sensation of post-coital oxytocin flooding, and that prevents them from feeling love in their marriages if they have premarital sex.  And because I didn’t want to depress the fun-loving audience, I didn’t mention the myth that husbands only beat wives because they’re not submissive enough.

When plainly listed, the number of lies generated by the religious right regarding sexual health issues is dizzying.  So much so that you have to wonder why do they lie so damn much?  There’s two basic reasons.  One is to establish plausible deniability when it comes to policy, and the other is to confuse the issues with the people in the mushy middle.  Both are reasons to insist on the scientific facts, and both shape our understanding on how to wield scientific facts when it comes to discourse. 

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On the public policy front, Jodi recently wrote a piece showing how the con works.  Anti-choicers know that the major obstacle to implementing their anti-woman beliefs is that women are considered citizens and full human beings by the government, and so they have to pretend that anti-woman policies somehow benefit women in order to argue for them in legislation and the courts.  So legislation like the TRAP laws in Kansas—legislation actually designed to hurt women by taking away their ability to get safe abortion—is presented disingenuously as somehow protective of women.  During legal proceedings, therefore, the use of actual facts to fight lies can be effective.  In fact, in many ways, it’s the only hope we have when it comes to actually protecting the interests of women.

The religious right lies about sexual health also to appeal to the people in the middle who don’t know much about the issue and therefore are vulnerable to believing dangerous lies—and taking dangerous actions such as forgoing condoms because they believe these lies.  Facts are a critical counter to this.

But, as I emphasized on the panel, it’s not enough to simply counter the lies with facts.  I think many times liberals think that all you need to do is get the correct information out there and people will adjust their opinions accordingly.  In reality, facts that are promoted without a solid ideological or moral framework tend to be dismissed or forgotten.  When promoting the facts, I argued, we have to frame them in terms of the values that our different audiences already have, because this will make them listen to you and it will make it harder for them to dismiss the facts out of hand.  The example I used was the research demonstrating that communities with more liberal values—later marriage, tolerance for abortion, promotion of women’s education and independence—actually have lower divorce rates than communities that promote conservative values.  So, when arguing the facts with a person who has more conservative values about family, emphasize how women’s liberation actually stabilized families, and you’re far more likely to get them to pause and consider your arguments.

How this works when it comes to sexual health is not as easy to see.  We’ll never get the religious right to accept the facts; their hostility to women and human sexuality is too ingrained to ever allow in information that could destabilize that point of view.  But the mushy middle tends to hold a mixture of conservative beliefs about sex (that it’s dirty and/or shameful) and liberal beliefs about sex (that it’s fun and people shouldn’t be punished for being sexual, that the double standard is unjust), and the key to reaching them is to wield the facts in such a way that we provoke them to think more about their liberal beliefs than their conservative ones. 

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.