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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Creativity of the Foreclosed Option

Here is an interesting reflection, just in from Dr. Rachel MacNair, a peace psychologist, Quaker, and vegetarian activist who has been involved in social justice issues practically from the cradle onwards.

She finds insights into the psychology of violence and nonviolence in scientific research, literature, and popular culture. With Linda Naranjo-Huebl and Mary Krane Derr, she is editor of ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today, Second Expanded Edition, the book that inspired the Nonviolent Choice Directory.

And I also should say here, she is one of the people who persuaded me, through her gentle speech and example, to reconsider meateating and become a vegetarian, over a decade ago.--Marysia


The recent discovery of how skin cells can be made into stem cells that do what embryonic stem cells do made the news in late November, 2007 as an exciting new development that would do what people wanted to do with cures, but without the ethical dilemma that made prolifers oppose it. Setting aside that adult stem cells are showing more promise now anyway and even with this new development any possible cures are still way off, it’s possible that scientists might not have been looking for this alternative if the unethical method had not been foreclosed to them under the federal funding ban. The case against embryonic stem cells was not just the death of newly formed human beings; to do it right, they needed to clone, which meant getting those embryos from women donating eggs – a dangerous procedure from which a handful of women have died, more have been injured, and women in poverty were most likely to be subjected. Skin cells, on the other hand, are much more easily come by.

With obvious benefits of the ethical version over the unethical one, why not have thought in those terms in the first place? The fact is, there are many areas where avoiding something that is violent brings about more and better options than using violence does. Consider:

•Studies (and my own experience) show that vegetarians have a more varied diet than average. That should be odd – wouldn’t a diet that’s defined by what’s not in it necessarily have fewer options?

•Pacifists know that if you can’t use violence against brutal dictatorships, invaders and vicious policies, then you have to have some way to counter them. Not just violence, but apathy and cowardice are options that are foreclosed under pacifism. Hence, the proliferation of a wide variety of methods of nonviolence. Lo and behold, experience throughout history and all over the world has shown this to be more effective. Nonviolent revolutions lead to more peaceful aftermath.

•In an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, the Klingon Worf was in an accident leaving him paralyzed. According to Klingon tradition, this meant he should commit ritual suicide, and he was intent on doing so. The doctor was appalled. She tried to research Klingon physiology to find treatment, but Klingons had no advice to give. Since they always committed suicide on such occasions, they had no information. Various creative things were tried for allowing him to live and function with dignity even if not full use of his legs, and finally a procedure which cured him was found. Solutions could be found because one option – the option of suicide – was foreclosed in the doctor's mind.

•Women-helping-women crisis pregnancy centers now vastly outnumber abortion clinics. If abortion isn’t an option for women already pregnant, then public policy and programs that empower them to bear their children can become more prevalent than if women are simply abandoned to the abortion clinic. The late Henry Hyde himself supported the Family and Medical Leave Act on the floor of the House on this very reasoning (would but that more politicians would understand this!)

Once a violent solution is on the table, it tends to preclude the development of alternatives. Violence as a problem-solving technique has the apparent advantage of being quick and efficient. One need only ignore the long-term aftermath and other negative impact on society. Nonviolent alternatives must of necessity take more care, attention, resources and time. They have obvious advantages in the long run, but the short-term consequence is more work.

This leads to the ironic outcome that foreclosing an option means more options available, rather than fewer. In the psychology of creativity, this is called “divergent thinking.” This is a form of thinking that by deviating from the obvious and the conventional produces several possible solutions to a particular problem. Brainstorming is an exercise in divergent thinking. Many possible solutions are generated when people don’t limit themselves to the obvious or conventional. I call this the “creativity of the foreclosed option.”

--Rachel MacNair

Web Page: www.rachelmacnair.com
Books written or edited: http://www.rachelmacnair.com/books and http://www.rachelmacnair.comprolifebooks

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