When an iconic, polarizing individual dies, the emotional weight of the event depends on the polarity of the observer. Last night, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died at the age of 87. Ginsberg was a pioneer, feminist icon, and judicial giant—notably, she was seen by many as a bulwark of abortion rights. And it’s this aspect of Ginsberg’s legacy that shapes how some people are reacting to her death.
A few hours after the news broke, Representative Doug Collins tweeted: “RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws.”
RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws. With @realDonaldTrump nominating a replacement that values human life, generations of unborn children have a chance to live.— Doug Collins (@CollinsforGA) September 19, 2020
Rep. Collins has been broadly criticized for this tweet, with some calling it “unforgivable.” He, like some on the right, might not be sharing the sadness and emotional gravity that many on the left are feeling right now. This is because there’s fundamental disagreement about what Ginsburg was. To many, she was indeed a judicial giant and massive force for good. To others, however, her ardent defense of abortion rights amounts to the promulgation of the practice of genocide.
To some readers, that might sound patently ridiculous. She was a 5’1”, 87-year-old defender of women’s rights—the furthest thing from a genocidal maniac. But the fact of the matter is that some people think abortion is murder, which makes the practice of abortion in the US a genocide. And if you think abortion is genocide, you would not be crushed when a defender of that genocide dies.
Let me put this another way. Out there, in the minds of 330 million Americans, there are roughly two archetypal Ginsburgs. There’s Ginsburg the Saint—the feminist, judicial icon, and defender of our liberties—and there’s Ginsburg the Tyrant—the activist-judge who promulgates genocide. And regardless of the real, material Ginsburg or any objective set of nuanced facts about her life, people react to her death according to how they perceive her, and not necessarily how she actually was.
While this doesn’t forgo the possibility that there’s a correct way to characterize Ginsburg—some perceptions are more aligned with objective reality than others—it is necessary to understand that many “deviant” opinions and attitudes are not pure aberrations, but rationally contextualized within their own broader framework.
So if you think Ginsburg was a great woman and icon of justice, then her death is a tragedy. But if you’re on the other side of this, it’s an understandably different story—and there will be no tears for tyrants.
If I can offer something practical, I suppose I’d encourage a kind of radical empathy—that we should be trying to understand how other people see the world and acknowledging fundamental disagreements instead of only engaging in surface-level bickering and political attacks. Different people see the world differently, and these differences are genuine. It is necessary for a civil society that we reach across these differences and practice toleration and mutual understanding.
The truth is that Ginsberg was neither a tyrant nor a saint. She was a real person, and as far as I can tell, there’s plenty worth criticizing as much as there’s plenty worth admiring. For the latter, her friendship with conservative justice Antonin Scalia is a pristine model for how we should engage with those with whom we disagree. Although they had drastically different judicial philosophies and opinions, they had a close friendship that spanned decades.
It’s a particularly divisive time in America, and if we wish to be civil in the coming weeks, we should try to recognize that just because someone disagrees with us, that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person—they might just see the world differently. But that cold, ambiguous reality may be warmed up not through partisan skirmishes, but through civil mutual understanding and, if you’re very lucky, perhaps something approximating friendship.
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