Why Discussing Guns and Roe v Wade is Difficult, Even for BridgeUSA Students

Jessica Carpenter

It’s no secret that guns and abortion are two of — if not the — most contentious topics in our politics. Where other issues center primarily on statistics and what policies may create the best outcome, abortion and guns find themselves grouped into a larger, more intangible idea: morality. 

Morals are our understanding and perception of “right” and “wrong”. How we view morality is framed by various things, including how and where we are raised, what values we are taught, how we view relationships with family members and friends, and also our understanding of responsibility.

For this reason, when discussions that rely heavily on individual morals find themselves at the forefront of our politics, they are some of the most heated. Even for BridgeUSA students. How do we explain the value we each place on life? More importantly, how are we able to talk about these issues constructively?

On June 23, the Supreme Court struck down a proposed New York law that would’ve limited who could obtain a permit to carry a gun in public, stating that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. This decision comes after a series of mass shootings in May forced both legislators and the American public to re-address their view of gun laws in the U.S.

On June 24, the Supreme Court also released its ruling on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, overturning Roe v Wade. The ruling, which previously deemed a women’s right to an abortion a constitutional right in 1973, will now leave the decision up to individual states. 

Both of these rulings undoubtedly have added to the continued debate on gun laws and abortion, and may make it seem like these issues are impossible to discuss. Not only are these discussions difficult, but they also require us to reflect on our personal morals and be more deliberate in how we express those beliefs. This might be where the problem lies altogether.

A crowd gathers outside the Supreme Court after a draft opinion leaks that judges are planning to overturn Roe v Wade (Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times. 2022)

The split in moral understanding is nothing new in the United States. As I said, there are many factors that help form our understanding of morality and what we deem “morally right”. Studies suggest the majority of that formation can be dependent on one’s childhood and one’s culture. 

The Moral Foundations Theory was first proposed in 2004 to understand why morality varies so much across cultures. From their review of earlier research, psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham suggested that all individuals possess “intuitive ethics” that guide their understanding of morals. They labeled these foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal (Ingroup/Outgroup), Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation, with the latest addition including Liberty/Oppression – a nod to the influence of one’s political ideology on their perception of morality, as proposed by Haidt.

Each of these foundations centers on our perception of each group, and these understandings vary between groups of people, including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

In 2009, Haidt and Graham proposed a new hypothesis to explain this difference between political groups. This theory suggested that “political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations—Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity—whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon the first five psychological foundations.”

If we take this theory and apply it to debates of abortion and gun laws today, it’s probable that many individuals on the left and right use the same measurements proposed in 2009 to dictate their stances. And this isn’t unique to just guns and abortion. According to the same study, American voters are also starting to use their values to guide their vote toward “their vision of a good society”. 

Now, just because our morals are formed through various means and experiences, this does not mean they are concrete, and studies show that our morals may change over time for various reasons. In fact, one of the main drivers of moral change is actually human interaction. 

According to Nature.com, when we associate with other people and share common goals, we extend empathy to them. As we begin to meet other people outside of our immediate social circles, our ‘moral circle’ also widens and we may begin to shift our stances within certain moral foundations. 

This is all interesting, but where does that leave us as far as having discussions about moral issues go, currently? Seemingly, at a standstill. Due to growing divisions within the country, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are less likely to engage with those outside of their political or social circles. However, just because it is difficult to discuss issues centered primarily around morality with others, it doesn’t mean it is impossible. 

There is no one right way to discuss topics grounded in morality, including guns or abortion. Luckily, I’ve been able to pick up a few tips during my experience in BridgeUSA.

  1. Don’t dive straight into the conversation at first
  2. Decide what you want out of the conversation and have patience throughout
  3. Seek to understand the other person – not change their mind
  4. Agreement on the broader picture is not always likely, and it’s important to also focus on where some of your beliefs may overlap
  5. Remember that your “opponents” are people too, no matter how much you may disagree

Hundreds of gun owners and enthusiasts attend a rally in Hartford, CT on Jan. 19 (Rick Hartford/MCT/Landov)

No one in our country has figured out the right approach to these topics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As long as we’re still willing to engage each other and allow room for discussion and constructive disagreement on these topics, we can allow ourselves space to understand each other’s morals and still find ways to make change together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jessica Carpenter

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and I’m ready to celebrate in the best way possible: Watching the Super Bowl. Outside of little gifts from my mom every year (shoutout to moms!), I’ve never really cared too much about celebrating the day of love. I do enjoy the chocolate, though. I will admit that. Despite all of this, Valentine’s Day is interesting to me. Not because of the flowers or the rom-coms, but because every year we see couples celebrate in different ways – some with extravagant gifts and others just hanging out like I do – and I always wonder what their relationship is like outside of this holiday.

Are they good at communicating? What do they do to resolve arguments? What happens when there is a difference in opinions or lifestyle?  For me, all of these questions come from listening to my grandparents talk about each other and seeing how my friends handle their relationships (sometimes not always in the best way). And in all my thinking, I’ve found that how I would address these things relates back to what I’ve learned through having difficult discussions with BridgeUSA.

In fact, many bridge-building practices that we use in our conversations can be applied to relationships and help form healthier bonds between partners. What? A college organization practicing empathy and discussion can teach me about my relationships? Yes! Things such as active listening and setting boundaries just scratch the surface of similarities between our personal relationships and improving political dialogue. 

Here are five bridge-building practices that can actually help in your relationships:

#1: Listening is the key to success

This one shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to Psychology Today, 96% of people believe that they are good listeners, yet people only retain about half of what others say. That means that while we think we’re listening, the opposite might be true. The reason for this is that we often become distracted during a conversation. We’re thinking about how we want to respond or what we’re having for dinner, and in return, we may not hear what our partner is saying or misunderstand their point altogether.

Just as understanding another person in a discussion is important, so is seeking to understand our significant other. And that happens through listening! By removing distractions, staying curious, not making assumptions and asking questions, we can become better listeners. This is important because listening strengthens relationships and demonstrates attentiveness, caring, and respect. So, put your phone down and pay attention!

#2: How to handle conflict

Arguably one of the most stressful parts of having a Bridge discussion is the potential for conflict to arise. Thankfully, our moderation training helps provide some guidance in that area, but many couples aren’t as fortunate to have resources on hand in similar situations. Rephrasing points, taking a moment of silence and allowing room to respond are a few ways to address conflict, but what about shutting down the conversation altogether?

If you’re anything like me, the thought of cutting someone off after a bad encounter sounds kinda nice, but one of the many tips Dr. Nura Mowzoon has for handling situations in this manner is simple: Don’t do it. 

Dr. Mowzoon is a relationship and couples coach currently teaching at Arizona State University. With 10 years of field experience under her belt, Dr. Nura provides tips that are both helpful for managing healthy relationships, but are also often applied in bridge-building conversations.

Although it may feel easy to remove yourself from the situation* or leave unresolved arguments behind us, what we’re really doing is avoiding the problem. According to Dr. Mowzoon, cutting off people who upset us sets us up for failure in our future romantic relationships. Learning to address conflict and constructively engage points of contention is something that is critical for solution-finding in both conversations and relationships.

#3: Learning to self-reflect and have humility

Self-reflection and humility are probably the two hardest things to do in both a conversation and a relationship. Taking a moment to reflect in our conversations means accepting that we are not always right, and that others have something to offer. Saying that we don’t have all the facts, we might not know too much about a topic or acknowledging that there may be flaws in our arguments inspires growth and allows room for nuance and new information in a discussion. This is also beneficial in our relationships. 

Humility generates connection, and connection is the bedrock upon which a relationship and its values can flourish, says the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute. Humility means accepting differences and being willing to listen. Self-reflection is the second step that allows us to become more aware of our own thoughts, emotions and intentions. Acknowledging these things in a relationship is important because you are less likely to push negative behaviors onto your significant other when you become aware of them. It’s also important because you are there to support each other, and pride and the refusal to admit wrongdoings can turn people away from each other, and even end the relationship.

#4: Avoiding assumptions and speaking for someone else

In our current political environment, people often assume things about each other based on their party affiliation, their skin color, where they live and what they’re wearing. Going off of these initial assumptions is the quickest way to kill a conversation before it even starts, and can prevent us from getting to know the reality of the situation. Again, the same can be said for relationships.

A lack of communication between partners creates the opportunity to fill in the blanks about a situation based on our own perception, even if it’s inaccurate. According to Psychology Today, assumptions about your partner can create inaccurate interpretations, resentments, and undue strife in relationships. This happens through misreading facial cues and body language, believing your partner already knows how you feel, and also assuming you know what your partner wants. 

Instead of speaking for each other, allow a space for you and your partner to express how you’re both feeling. It’s also important to become aware of your own assumptions when they’re happening. Shutting down the opportunity for conversations and finding solutions because we’re relying on our own perception of a situation is the quickest way to drive a wedge in relationships, and no one is happy in the end.

#5: Being willing to go beyond your comfort zone

It’s said that the best relationships will take you out of your comfort zone and help you grow. If I were to summarize all of the tips mentioned above with just one sentence, I would say that the best bridge-building practice to help in your relationship is to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and have hard conversations where you’re willing to be vulnerable. 

The problem of staying in our comfort zones is that we’re never challenged, we’re never confronted with difficult discussions, or forced to reflect on ourselves or our relationships. Maybe we brushed over an argument with our partner without actually addressing it; maybe some excitement gets lost in the relationship because date nights are always the same. Maybe you don’t even take that first step in a relationship because you’re afraid of rejection.

Coming out of our comfort zones may completely transform relationships with significant others and create stronger bonds altogether. By inviting difficult conversations, saying what you want in a relationship, trying new things with your partner and learning to understand someone else, you begin to form a healthier and more trusting relationship with your significant other, and may feel more fulfilled in the end.

Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day like me this year or going out with someone special, everyone can benefit from learning a few little relationship hacks. And in this way, it seems like bridge-building can provide a few pointers.

I’m no relationship counselor. I’m just a person who likes having discussions. But what I’ve learned through having these difficult conversations is that they also exist outside of politics, and just like in politics, many of us are slow to engage in hard and uncomfortable discussions. Especially in our relationships. If we can’t learn to build bridges with our partners, we surely can’t do it in our communities either.

*This does not speak to cutting out abusive individuals and leaving abusive situations.