The Twitter thought experiment that exposes "pro-life" hypocrisy

Comedian and sci-fi writer Patrick Tomlinson on the dangerous question that abortion foes refuse to answer

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published October 22, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)


Last Monday, a tweetstorm eviscerating abortion foes went viral. Science fiction writer and comedian Patrick Tomlinson introduced it this way:

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I've been asking for ten years now of the "Life begins at Conception" crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly.

The question is as follows: Would you save one 5-year-old child from a burning building, or save 1,000 embryos. The point: No one actually thinks that embryos are the same as living children. But an entire movement is based on lying about it, and using that lie to manipulate people, in order to control women like slaves.

You can see the whole tweetstorm at the link above, or at Crooks and Liars or Raw Story, which both republished it. It's very straightforward, which is part of why it went viral so furiously. Naturally the obfuscation brigade came forward, with Ben Shapiro at the Daily Wire leading the way. But he didn't actually dispute Tomlinson's main point. "Tomlinson is correct that we all have a moral instinct: to save the five-year-old," he admitted, then going on to argue that it didn't matter.

But it clearly does. If it were one 5-year-old vs. 1,000 actual babies, things would be different. "No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children," Tomlinson wrote. "Those who claim to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women."

If no anti-choicer could answer the question Tomlinson posed, they could still respond — with everything from death threats to a DDOS attack on his website. Which only proved his point: They can't handle the truth. And they desperately need to protect the lie, as if their very lives depended on it.

If the tweetstorm was simple, its echoes and implications are not. They are as broad as the culture wars, and they go back centuries — if not millennia. I’ve written before about the book "Asymmetric Politics," for example, but Tomlinson’s tweetstorm reveals a different, more basic sort of asymmetry than the one between “ideological Republicans” and “group interest Democrats.”

It’s an asymmetry between fanciful big lies and direct, concrete truths — the kinds people actually have to live and struggle with. The kinds that novelists have been writing about for centuries, that TV and movies and comics and more all deal with today, much to the consternation of traditional moralists, who have all the pre-packaged answers for us laid out on their Procrustean beds.

As a writer and comedian, Tomlinson seemed perfectly suited to shed more light — not just on the tweetstorm 10 years in the making, but on how its exposure of lies, hypocrisy and manipulation fits into a bigger picture. So I spoke with him last week. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You say you’ve been putting this question out there for 10 years. How did you first come up with this hypothetical, and what were the first responses?

When I say I've been saying it for 10 years, I mean I'd say it to people over beers, in bars, in different contexts. So for 10 years in conversation, I've thrown this at people. A lot of folks online have been like, "Oh that's just a modification of the trolley problem," and yeah that's true. But it's also irrelevant. If you look at the trolley problem, it was probably called the cart problem back in the horse-drawn carriage days. Before that it was probably the rolling rocks problem. It's a modification of something that I didn't claim was my own.

I came up with it because I was sick to death of the irresponsible and frankly dishonest framing of the whole debate. I am not, as Ben Shapiro called me, a "pro-abortion fanatic," which is complete nonsense. Nobody is pro-abortion. People are just pro-"Hey maybe since I don't have a vagina, I shouldn't really have a whole lot of say in what people do with theirs." The framing of the debate from people who want to call themselves pro-life -- I prefer anti-abortion, or anti-choice -- they frame it as “you’re killing babies” or “you’re killing children.” ​T​hat kind of language absolutely suffuses the whole argument that comes from their side. And it's completely false. It's completely dishonest, and it's intended only to emotionally manipulate the conversation.

I think we can have an honest debate, an​ ​honest​ conversation about abortion and its proper place in our society. But when you've got somebody calling everybody on the other side baby-killers, you're not contributing to that honest debate. You are emotionally manipulating people, you're trying to appeal to that paternal and ​m​aternal instinct that we've all got on some level, to protect kids, to protect children — because we all care about them — but it's not appropriate to the situation. So that's why I started saying that to ​people. Not to say, "Hey, you're wrong to be against abortion. You're wrong to be pro-life." That's not actually the point I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is, you're wrong to say these are children, because they aren't, and you don't even believe it.

It's not just that I don't believe they're children, it's that you don't even believe what you're saying. You're just using this as a club to beat people who are standing up for the rights of women. That's all. That's all you're doing. For 10 years, in one-on-one scenarios -- which is the point I was trying to make in the tweets -- when having one-on-one conversations with people, they never answer. Never. I never had somebody say, "Oh, I would save the 1,000 embryos and let the child burn to death." No one's ever said that. And no one will ever say that. Not when you're looking at them. And I never had somebody say, "I would save the child,"​ because they know what they're conceding by saying that.

They instead have always – again, I want to emphasize, when talking to someone one-on-one, not talking at​ 50,000 of Ben Shapiro's followers on Twitter. When I'm talking to people in one-on-one conversations, they try to weasel out of answering. They're like, "Oh, well, what if ..." And I'm like, "No, no, no. Just answer my scenario. We'll get to your scenario, but you have to give me an answer to mine first. Then we'll worry about if it's an elderly person in a wheelchair, or whatever the heck you want to do with it. Answer mine, and ​then we'll deal with yours."

They never want to do it. Because they would have to admit that ethically, morally and logically, we aren't talking about children. We aren't talking about babies. And it is dishonest for them to use that language as a weapon against people who are trying to stand up for the rights of women. That's all I'm looking to get out of it. I'm not trying to say that they're wrong for opposing abortion. I'm trying to say they're wrong for saying that we're murdering children. 

Did you start off not knowing how anti-abortion folks would respond, or did you have a feeling from the beginning this would be a real conundrum for them?

I didn't realize how much of a conundrum it would be for folks. I've asked it enough times that I know how much it flummoxes them. But when I brought it up on Twitter, it wasn't because it was "Oh, this is going to earn me 7,000 followers" or, "This is going to help my book sales go through the roof." I love people who accuse me of that whenever I have a tweet that goes kind of viral. It's like, "Dude, if I knew which tweets were going to go viral, I would only write those tweets, wouldn't I?" You can't predict this stuff.

Anyway, the reason I put it up when I did was that the House has just passed that complete nonsense 20-week abortion ban. Which is so flagrantly unconstitutional. It’s just a complete waste of time. Everyone knows it's going to get shot down; they're just wasting time and trying to appeal to this base that they are just whipping into a frenzy, while ignoring the fact that they kind of elected a serial sexual predator to be president. The moral disconnect there makes me so angry. 

I do some standup comedy, and I've told that in joke form in front of audiences a few times. Depending on the audience, it can go either way. Either people are really with that, or I lose the audience forever. But that's down to me, my timing,​whether I read the audience right. That's just comedy. So I didn't expect it to blow up. I didn't expected to be on Raw Story, I didn't expect Ben Shapiro and Matt​ Walsh to write pissy articles about it the next day. I didn't think any of these things was going to happen, and I wasn't shooting for those things. I had something to say and I put it out there. 

One reason this caught my attention is that I think this is a much broader problem than the abortion issue. There's a lot of deceptive and manipulative framing from the right, and while there is something to be said for both sides having extremes that get carried away, it's highly asymmetrical.

It's very asymmetrical. The nature of the NFL protests, for example. All of a sudden Trump decides to bring that up, because oh, by the way, Robert Mueller keeps interviewing people closer and closer to his inner circle so let's declare war on the NFL because we're not winning any other battles. He brought that back up and then dishonestly refram​ed the whole thing as "They're attacking our soldiers!" What the hell are you talking about? The entire protest had nothing to do with disrespecting the flag, it had nothing to do with saying our soldiers were whatever. It had nothing to do with that.

It was just Trump and the right co-opting the debate and the narrative away from black athletes who have influence and have a platform so they can talk about these things that impact their communities and their families in a way that white people in the NFL and white people in the Trump administration will never have to deal with.

So they're like, "Gosh, how can we make this no longer be about the fact that black men are three and a half times more likely to be killed by police than white men? How can we get away from that conversation? Oh, I know: We'​ll say black athletes are attacking troops." Which is a complete and utter lie — and was from the beginning. But it plays well to the NASCAR crowd. So, right. It is very asymmetric. There's no similarity between how both sides are handling themselves on these issues.

The Weinstein thing is another example. You've got Harvey Weinstein finally, apparently, exposed as a sexual predator, and what does the left do? Well they started giving his donations back, or giving them to women's groups. He got fired from his job. And everybody on the left condemned him. What did the right to when they found out that Donald Trump was irrefutably a sexual predator? They elected him president. So there's nothing resembling equivalency here. Nothing. And I say that as someone who identifies as a classic conservative, by the way.

How would you define that, being a classic conservative?

The intellectual foundations of the movement are described by people like Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott. They conceived of conservatism as a counterweight to the utopian impulses of the left. Progressives in England at the time — which is where both those men originated — were very much about legislating away human vice. They were like, we can fix all the problems of humanity through the power of government. The conservative movement had its intellectual roots as a pushback against that impulse, saying, "No, we have to base this on facts. We have to base this on logic and evidence. We have to base this on real-world examples, and we have to adapt policies to human nature, instead of assuming human nature can be adapted by policy." And that's what I say when I say I'm a conservative, which is what the word meant for more than 100 years, before it was co-opted by the extreme religious right in our country.

You've already alluded to some of the pushback you got to your tweets. Did anything about that surprise you? Or did it simply confirm what you expected?

I've irritated a lot of people before, so this was not new to me. The volume was probably new; it's probably more and faster than I dealt with before, but as far as the type of it, it's all the same thing. My website got hit by a DDOS attack. I've gotten the death threats. I got people threatening to dox me. I'm like, "Go ahead, and have fun with that." The responses are not surprising at all. 

I'm fortunate in the fact that I'm male, for one thing, because I have friends who are female or who are disabled or who are older, and death threats and those sorts of things are really important to them. That is something that they really have to concern themselves with. I don't have a family at the moment, I don't have kids at home. If somebody wants to come to my door and take a swing at me, good luck! Pack a lunch. Bring some friends. It will be great! I will livestream the whole goddamn thing!

So once I saw how big it was getting – like pretty big pretty quickly – I was expecting all that. I wasn't expecting to end up on the Daily Wire and the Federalist and I think Weekly Standard did one, too. I wasn't expecting people at that level of the conservative movement to care what some sci-fi author with 13,000 followers on Twitter had to say that. That was kind of surprising mostly because I think there are other things that are impacting their party at the moment. Like Carter Page getting subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, little things like that. Instead of what some random guy none of them had heard of 12 hours before said on Twitter. But if that's what you want to talk about, because you don't want to talk about the other things, OK, let's do that. 

Up to a point. I blocked Ben Shapiro almost immediately, because he started acting kind of dickish on Twitter. He put out his piece, which I read in its entirety. He agreed with me on the only ​point I was trying to make in the first paragraph, and then went on to spend 800 more words arguing against points I was not making.

As you say, no one’s ever answered the question, but you have gotten death threats. That’s a whole other level of asymmetry.

​The attacks are meant to silence and intimidate, in order to preserve the status quo of the conversation and the underlying power dynamic. The nominal right wing has long positioned itself as the true arbiter of absolute morality, patriotism, fiscal responsibility, respect for the troops, defenders of life, liberty, yada yada. It lets them set the parameters and tone of public debate.

Never mind that in literally every instance, their claims to ethical and moral authority are laughably false. "Conservatives" are responsible for installing a Russian traitor in the White House, exploding the deficit under Bush II (which Obama cut by a trillion dollars, with a T) and refusing funding for the VA to handle the surge in wounded veterans that resulted from their wars of choice. They have relentlessly attacked the gains we've made in health care coverage and the uninsured rate with the ACA, and on and on. 

But it's not enough to point out their hypocrisy and their "do as I say, not as I do" approach to governance. The baseline assumption that they have the authority in the first place to decide ethical standards of public policy needs to be attacked. And when it is, hoo boy, do they get nervous.

You're also a science fiction writer. Going back to the 19th century, novelists caused a lot of commotion by inserting themselves into moral and intellectual debates. Do you see yourself in that tradition?

Many of the best science fiction or fantasy novels throughout the last hundred years or so that deal with politics are extended thought experiments. You take a premise: What if the world was like this instead? Or you just twist stuff enough so that people are able to look at it a little bit more dispassionately, with a bit more distance than they would otherwise, so they can see the same thing in a new way.

Take, for example, Frank Herbert's "Dune." To this day it should be required reading, because i​t's a parable about the Middle East and their huge oil supply and the disproportionate effect that they have on the rest of the economies of the rest of the world because of that. You've got this desert planet, with a spice created by the sand worms and then harvested, that allows all interstellar trade to happen. It's just a stand-in for petroleum, and the desert world is just a stand-in for the Middle East. He was talking about that in the 1960s, before the first big OPEC oil crisis in the '70s, he was already laying the stuff out. And what was he saying? Are we giving this one planet, this one people, or this one resource too much power? Are we setting ourselves up for a single point of failure? You can argue back and forth quite a bit what he was trying to say, but it was an extended thought experiment. And you can't read "Dune" now and look at where we are in world geopolitics and say that he was wrong about very much. Because he wasn't.

So I think you're right in that, when you have people who ​are still operating on a belief system that is very resistant to change, for millennia, and then you have other people, the novelists, the screenwriters, the actors, the poets, musicians, comedians, saying, "Yeah, let's look at how this stuff actually works right now." And ​when ​they do that through their mediums, however they choose to do it, they're going to have compelling things to say. Yeah, that really upsets the establishment, like a lot. And rightfully so. They carved out a niche, they fought for it. I get why they're mad. But that's a fight that needs to happen.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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