Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Margaret Sanger, a lesson in research and picking your battles.
This week, I'm just going to jump straight into the topic because it has got me so pissed off. Lately, I've been seeing a certain picture popping up on my Facebook feed. I'm sure some of you have probably seen this one too. It's:
I have made the mistake a few times of pointing out that the quote on the picture is taken completely out of context from a book that Margaret Sanger wrote in 1922. The first time I did, someone had mentioned what a horrible person she was for wanting to kill babies. There were also a few comparisons to Hitler in the thread. I did a little looking, mostly in Wikipedia and WikiQuote. This quote comes from chapter 2 of her book "Woman and the New Race". I found that she was talking about extremely large families where the infant mortality rate and the mothers chance of dying in childbirth increases with every child. In 1922, the mortality rate among the youngest children of large families was as high as 70%. Many times, the children died from starvation, typhoid ,or tuberculosis. I also pointed out that Margaret Sanger was against abortion. She promoted contraceptive use to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. After making my point, the person that posted it said she hadn't realized this. She just wanted to show what a wicked person Sanger was and the next day, we had a calm, rational, and informative talk (in real life no less) about the topic.
The next time I saw this, I simply said read the Wikipedia article or the Snopes article on it and I was thanked by several people.(Rationality for the Win!)
The most recent appearance of this horrible amalgamation of photograph and quote, everyone in the comment thread was screaming (a lot of them seemed to have gotten their Caps Lock stuck) about how she was a racist. I simply pointed out that the quote is taken out of context, and in fact, she helped set up the first womens health clinic in Harlem. Then it got strange. One person said he could prove she was a racist, as he had been in the Anti-abortion movement for nearly 40 years, and yet he offered no proof. The next one pointed out that she was a eugenicist, and accused me of basically being insensitive. At this point I realized that no matter what I said, all it was going to do was incite a flame war. I don't have time for that crap. All I tried to do was point out that an organization was taking one sentence from one book she wrote nearly 100 years ago and are using it in their marketing campaign. If you look hard enough, you can pull the same damn stunt with Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or even your own parents. I'll admit, she did believe in eugenics,and so did Winston Chuchill, Theodore Roosevelt, John H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Bernard Shaw. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics#Supporters_and_critics and en.wikipediaorg/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States. ) The fact that most of the people seem to be missing is that in 1922, eugenics, which is essentially a human breeding program to improve the species, was a popular idea. In fact, in the United States, there were 32 states with eugenic programs for criminals and people with mental and/or physical disabilities. North Carolina didn't end theirs until 1977 and Oregon performed their last mandatory sterilization in 1981.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization#United_States and en.wikipediaorg/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States. ) Concerning the claims of racism, while she did view African Americans to be inferior, she did work with W.E. B.Du Bois to set up the first womens health clinic in Harlem. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger )
I found all this info in about 2 minutes, and yes, a lot of it does come from Wikipedia. There are more "Sanger is evil" articles than there are "Sanger was a normal early 20th century woman" articles, but with a bit of looking, I was also able to find relatively unbiased biographies of her and corroborate them with the Wikipedia article, which also has links to the articles external sources. She's not an angel, but she's not some spawn of hell either. She was simply a woman that was doing what she could to help other women during a period of our history when what we consider strange ideas about race and sexuality were considered normal.
By todays morality, and yes, morality does change, she would be viewed as a bigoted, racist woman. However, when you put the quote in the picture into context with the time it was written in, her views were the norm. What this organization, the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) is trying to do is to apply the morals of 2014 to a statement from 1922. It doesn't work. As people and cultures change, so does the moral fabric of society. 20 years ago, homosexual men were either a joke or plot device in movies and television shows. Now they are just another character. In 1968, on the episode titled "Plato's Stepchildren" Captain James T. Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura. The day before it aired, an interracial kiss was unthinkable. Now, most people don't really notice. You can not apply something as malleable as morals to events that happened in the past. The farther back the event occurred, the less that present day morals can be applied.
And by the way, the ACLJ, from what I can determine looking at their website, is a christian law group that views freedom of religion and freedom of speech as inalienable, god given rights. (Their words, not mine) So of course they would be anti abortion. Some of the questions on their homepage are "Bible study in the workplace" (not really phrased as a question, is it?), and "Religious groups denied public access". Under most popular are such pleasant titles as "Stop funding the United nations" and, wait for it...."Stopping abortion, Ending Planned Parenthoods Taxpayer Funds". Yep, an unbiased legal defense organization.
I do try and take advantage of every teaching moment I can, but I also have realized recently that I have to pick my battles more carefully. The people that will happily butcher and warp the legacy of a historical figure and the people that believe in their cause with every fiber of their being, are not going to be convinced by any facts that you present to them. But, if they were to put as much energy and time into looking at the claims they are making (and yes, even if you just re post something on Facebook, you are making a claim, unless you have a disclaimer) as they do spouting their vitriolic drivel, then maybe they would be able to build a more solid foundation for their arguments.
Thank you for joining me on this little trip through my mind and what become an almost daily occurrence. Until next time, Be Good, Be Reasonable, and be sure to wash behind your ears.
The Skeptical Okie