10 things Mehdi Hasan learned from debating abortion on Twitter

A response to the reaction to my most recent column.

I guess I should thank Felix Baumgartner. It was his jump that helped the Twitter mob "move on" from my column on abortion in the New Statesman - cross-posted on the Huffington Post UK - which had sparked such outrage, hysteria and abuse after it was published online on Sunday morning.

I may be digging myself further into a hole here but, with the benefit of a few hours of sleep, let me outline the ten things I think I learned from trying to debate and discuss abortion online:

1) Language matters. A lot.

First and foremost, I do deeply regret saying that supporters of abortion rights (not women, per se, by the way!) "fetishise... selfishness". Both words are, of course, deeply provocative and negative and I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, that I'd never used them.

Now, some on my side of this argument might say that the dictionary definition of "selfishness" - i.e. "concerned primarily with one's own interests" - makes the word relevant to this debate, on an abstract, ethical level, but that is beside the point. My use of it in this piece caused needless offence and hurt and, for that specifically, I want to apologise - especially to any female readers who have had to undergo an abortion, something I, of course, as a man, will never have to go through.

I normally write quite polemical and provocative columns but, when writing this particular piece, I did try to be careful and restrained in my use of language and avoid gratuitous abuse of my opponents - clearly, I wasn't careful or restrained enough.

2) Labels matter. On both "sides"

Many commenters on Twitter took offence at my self-identification as "pro-life". Now, I readily admit that "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are inaccurate, unhelpful and quite loaded phrases (who is anti-life? who is anti-choice?) - but what are the alternatives? What else do we have? In his blogpost in response to my column, Hope Sen embraces the phrase "pro abortion" but I know that many abortion-rights activists recoil from its implications. Meanwhile, it's worth pointing out that the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez (@weekwoman) have no right to criticise me for using the term "pro-life" if they, at the same time, uncritically embrace the equally propagandistic and useless term "pro-choice".

3) Two sides to every argument? Nope

What became apparent quite quickly yesterday is that, for some "pro choicers", there aren't two sides to every argument. I was told again and again by commenters on Twitter that there is no legitimate "pro life" (or "anti choice") position - which makes some of the the criticisms of my use of the words "selfishness" and "fetishise" (see point 1 above) a little irrelevant. It slowly dawned on me, at about 5pm on Sunday evening, that no matter how politely, gently and sensitively the anti-abortion case is expressed in the future, people on the 'pro-choice' liberal-left will never want to hear it. As Hopi Sen put it: "Every other argument, no matter how complex or technical, becomes secondary... What's more, they feel like issues on which there is little room for compromise, and on which I am right, and those who disagree with me are, bluntly, wrong." Or as one commenter on Twitter put it: "One thing that really gets on my nerves about @mehdirhasan's comments is that there isn't even a debate to be had about abortion." Er, ok.

Now I happen to respect the "pro choice" argument and accept it has a strong ethical foundation; the obverse, however, doesn't seem to the case. To hold 'pro life' views in modern Britain invites instant rejection and ridicule, as well as all sorts of repulsive and unwarranted accusations: yesterday, I was called, among other things, "evil", "sexist", "misogynist", "dictator" (despite the fact that I was "not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country"), "dickhead", "irresponsible bum", "the enemy", and, in the words of Labour blogger Hopi Sen - in a post that was lauded by, among others, Laurie Penny and Diane Abbott MP - "a self righteous little prick" (Hopi later added: "I'm not saying Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP, but that his argument left me with the reaction 'Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP'". I guess that's ok then.)

Oh, and one "pro choice" blogger compared me to Jimmy Saville. Classy.

4) Forget the foetus

I received hundreds and hundreds of tweets yesterday; the vast majority of them were critical of my position and a significant chunk of those were abusive. I can count on two hands the number of commenters who engaged with my claim that "a baby isn't part of [a woman's] body" and has rights of its own. If I am guilty of not giving due weight and attention to women's rights in my piece - and my critics do have a point here - then the 'pro choicers' online were equally guilty of ignoring the foetus, being unwilling to engage in the debate over 'personhood' and, in some shocking cases, dehumanising the foetus in order to score a point. I was astonished by the number of commenters on Twitter who referred to the foetus as a "cancer", a "lump of flesh", a "parasite" and a "cake" (as in, "cake in the oven").

The Independent's Musa Okwonga says this morning that he has "never known a woman considering abortion who has not thought, long and heart-breakingly hard, of the unborn child". I'm sure that's true - but, sadly, the afore-mentioned tweets might suggest that's not always the case.

5) It's all Islam's fault!

Muslims, it seems, aren't allowed to have independent political or moral views. Within minutes of my piece being published online yesterday morning, the precocious (pompous?) Economist reporter Daniel Knowles accused me of being "dishonest" about the real reason for my 'pro-life' position which was driven by...wait for it...yes, Islam! Despite the fact that Islamic law has no fixed, single position on abortion and despite me making clear in the piece that I would be anti-abortion "even if I were to lose my faith". To be fair, Knowles later apologised and deleted the tweet. Still, would a Jewish or Hindu journalist be accused of hiding the 'real reasons' for their views, in a similar fashion, I wonder?

6) My opponent's opponent is... not my friend

You know you've upset the liberal-left when Dan Hodges, Nadine Dorries MP and Damian Thompson rush to your defence on Twitter. Argh!

7) Unhitch from the Hitch

Quoting the late, not-so-great Christopher Hitchens at the outset of my column was a bad move. "I don't know why you bother to cite Hitchens," tweeted the Times' Janice Turner. "His sexual politics appalling. Reductive about anything which matters for women." Labour councillor Ed Davie tweeted: "quoting drunk, turncoat, neocon Hitchens shows weakness of anti-choice argument". Ouch.

8) Not-so-free speech

The reaction from left-liberal, 'pro-choice' commenters on Twitter yesterday reminded me that the right may have a point when they object to the left's shrill, one-sided, close-minded response to any attempt to debate certain social and ethical issues. In the wake of yesterday's Twitterstorm, I was depressed to find myself nodding along to a leader in today's Telegraph: "[T]he most notable feature of the current debate is not the victimisation of those who have abortions, but the vilification of those who in any way criticise the system."

On a related note, on Thursday, I was told by David Aaronovitch at a debate in the LSE that Muslims need "to get a thicker skin" and "be less touchy". Yesterday, I discovered that those who are liberally-inclined on abortion are quite touchy and have very, very thin skins. Oh, and many of them believe that half the world's population (i.e. men) should not have a say on one of the world's most controversial and important moral issues.

9) We are not alone

"Pro-life" lefties do exist - several well-known individuals emailed and DM-ed me their support. But they were afraid to do so publicly. Yesterday's Twitter mob frenzy (see points 3 and 8 above) will only have reinforced their conviction that if you're a progressive and "pro-life", it's best to lie low. One well-known female journalist told me recently: "I can't write about this issue."

10) I give up

The truth is that abortion is too heated, emotive and complex an issue to debate in 140 characters. Or, for that matter, in 950 words.

In conclusion, I wrote this column, not because I wanted to have a row about abortion or "climb on a bandwagon" (as bandwagon-climber-in-chief Diane Abbott claimed in a tweet), but because I desperately wanted "my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists".

Yesterday's Twitter responses show that I failed to persuade them to do so. Partly, through a loose use of language (i.e. "selfishness", "fetishize", etc); partly, however, because sections of the 'pro-choice' liberal-left aren't willing to acknowledge that abortion isn't a black-and-white issue; it's a complex moral debate, involving rights and responsibilities, life and death, on which well-meaning, moral people come to different ethical conclusions.

To go back to my original column, which so few on Twitter seemed to have bother to read before unleashing their hate, anger and bile:

"One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it's asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman's right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are 'incommensurable'."

This piece first appeared here on the Huffington Post and is crossposted with Mehdi's permission

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.