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How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out.

    Point of order: There is a major difference between not actively supporting marriage equality and actively opposing it. Portman fell into the latter category, and that does make him a bad person in my book, or at least an asshole and a bigot, which is near enough for my purposes. Indeed, his change of mind affects my opinion of him not at all; it’s his job to make laws based on evidence and ethics, not his personal hangups/beliefs, and he’s still basing his decisions on his personal hangups/beliefs. It’s a shitty mode of decision making, and it makes him impossible to trust as a public figure.

    My story of caring about issues not directly related to my life is similar to yours, except that over time, I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an issue that doesn’t affect me personally; they all have an impact on my life, one way or another.

  2. adam.b says

    Among pro-choice activists, there’s a fairly common phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article[...]

    Is that right or is that suppose to read “Among pro-life activists”?

  3. smrnda says

    An issue that didn’t used to be relevant for me, but which I find more important as time goes by is drug decriminalization. I think my early indifference was that I didn’t engage in any recreational drug use, and it didn’t seem like a huge issue because I thought of it as a bunch of people (the stereotypical pot-heads of my imagination) wanting to do drugs hassle free as opposed to caring about more serious issues.

    I saw it more and more as a social justice issue as the drug war provides the means of the police turning communities into occupied territories where civil liberties don’t apply as I got older, along with finding out how college kids busted for drugs got very different treatment from other demographics who get their lives ruined over far smaller infractions, and that thanks to non-violent drug offenders being put away, we have an increasing prison population while violent crime rates decline.

    To add, I’ve known people who died of drug overdoses. This hasn’t changed my mind since, perhaps if drugs were legal, we might get better quality control, and getting busted for drug possession isn’t going to help anyone get off drugs in the long term – by ruining your job prospects, it turns users into dealers as they need a way to make money.

    • says

      That’s definitely been on my mind lately since I’m almost done with The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs ought to highly disturb everyone regardless of whether or not they have any empathy for its victims, because it’s such a blatant violation of what this country is supposed to stand for (but clearly doesn’t).

      • says

        And, furthermore, it doesn’t accomplish its stated goal (Reducing the use of certain drugs being the alleged reason), it actively damages society, harms the economy, screws up foreign policy, and has no actual benefits whatsoever.

        • says

          And also that.

          People seem to be too stuck on “BUT THEY JUST SHOULDN’T DO DRUGS” without understanding that 1) people are going to do drugs anyway, 2) even if doing drugs is “wrong” the penalties shouldn’t be so high, and 3) white people who do drugs don’t seem to rank as high on law enforcement officials’ priority lists, and what the hell is up with that.

          • says

            And also 4) no one has yet advanced a valid argument as to why it’s wrong in the first place. The arguments presented are even worse than the usual religiously motivated tripe, because there’s not even a prohibition in anybody’s holy book about most of them

          • says

            Well, it’s arguably against the interests of society when too many people are too high on drugs to work and support themselves and need government assistance to survive (not that they often get it). An extreme libertarian might argue that people have the right to drug themselves to death if that’s what they want, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that these people might have children to care for and also that we need a certain amount of productive members of society in order for that society to keep going.

            (Of course, it still doesn’t necessarily follow that drugs should therefore be illegal.)

            However, I don’t think there are any good arguments for why doing drugs is “morally” wrong, but I also don’t really think that it can ever be morally wrong to do something that harms only yourself.

          • says

            Well, it’s arguably against the interests of society when too many people are too high on drugs to work and support themselves and need government assistance to survive (not that they often get it)

            In order for that to be a valid argument, someone would have to demonstrate that there’s even a possibility of this occurring, let alone a significant probability of it to base policy on, and that’s a totally unevidenced claim.

            An extreme libertarian might argue that people have the right to drug themselves to death if that’s what they want, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that these people might have children to care for and also that we need a certain amount of productive members of society in order for that society to keep going./blockquote>
            I do in fact support the right of people to drug themselves to death if that’s what they choose to do, although I also support a social safety net that offers other options. Child abuse and neglect are problematic in and of themselves, and haven’t necessarily got anything to do with drug use; if someone’s not caring for their kids, that needs to be dealt with regardless of why they aren’t doing it.
            As for the last, it’s part and parcel of the bit I quoted first. Basically, that argument assumes that people who have a choice between meaningful and productive uses of their time or getting high and watching TV all the time will always or almost always choose the latter, and once again, there’s no evidence that this is the case, and considerable evidence that it’s not. The entire premise is based on the Christian idea that people are intrinsically evil lazy sinners who must be coerced into following the arbitrary rules laid down by authority or else run rampant. It’s bullshit, basically, and I’m sick unto death of arguments that assume it. (Not a jab at you, but at the argument put forth).

          • says

            I’m not arguing in support of ANY aspect of U.S. drug policy. I’d only argue against it. But you asked what’s wrong with doing drugs and I provided one thing that might be wrong with it, without claiming that that justifies U.S. drug policy. Namely, the issue of addiction.

            Drug addiction is like any other mental illness in that it harms people and prevents them from doing things they’d otherwise be able to do. Obviously one can use drugs without being addicted to them, but you can’t examine the issue of drugs while ignoring the issue of addiction. I’d consider that a public health issue just like any other mental illness (or any other kind of illness).

          • says

            Jacob Sullum’s book Saying Yes very effectively argues against not just the drug war, but the general notion that “doing drugs” is bad.

            Yes, addiction is bad, and a very real danger. But I think it’s important to separate drug use from drug addiction. It’s very hard to argue with someone who is under the mistaken impression (and there are a lot of such people) that a drug being illegal somehow means it is– or even makes it– inherently addictive, whereas legal drugs are not. Sometimes they declare this explicitly; other times it’s more of an implicit assumption left over from being subjected to programs like D.A.R.E. as a child.

          • says

            It’s very hard to argue with someone who is under the mistaken impression (and there are a lot of such people) that a drug being illegal somehow means it is– or even makes it– inherently addictive, whereas legal drugs are not.

            Wow, people think that? Like, they think alcohol and tobacco are not addictive?

          • says

            Maybe I overstated it a bit. It’s more like they think alcohol and tobacco are not drugs– the word “drug” has connotations of illegality. A glass of wine, on the other hand, is just a drink. A cigarette is– or was, because things have certainly changed– just a smoke, like a cigar. And any prescription drugs are, of course, just medicine. You don’t take medicine you haven’t been prescribed, because that’s bad for you, but it’s not a moral evil like wanting to get high. And getting high is all you’d ever want the illegal drugs for, so they’re all bad.

          • says

            Oh hells yes, it was fantastic! Everybody should see that talk. I wish she would appear at every skeptical gathering and give it. Now I want to hunt it down on Youtube (assuming it’s there– hope it is) and watch it again.

          • MDavis says

            d also ) self-medication is a thing. Some people either cannot afford to get prescribed needed meds through health care professionals or else cannot get prescribed the drugs they need. For a literary example, there is the Eden Express (Mark Vonnegut) – through having schizophrenia he learned that alcohol use can help ease some of the symptoms. Also, a lot of people with DID seem to crave various forms of speed, including the legal drug caffeine in industrial quantities.

      • smrnda says

        I’m not sure drugs are really inherently bad myself. I’ve known quite a few people who were productive and functional while using drugs, and there’s no reason to think of alcohol and tobacco as ‘not drugs’ and other substances as ‘drugs.’ It’s purely a prejudice we have based on what’s legal.

        Excessive drug use, if it interferes with a person’s ability to be productive is bad, but so is excessive TV viewing or playing videogames or going to the gym. Some drugs – like certain hallucinogens – are probably too risky to ever be used outside of highly controlled situations, but I think we’ve been taught to believe that you can’t both do drugs and be a productive member of society. Replace ‘do drugs’ with ‘drink’ and you have the philosophy of a lot of people who simply extend this disdain to a legal drug, which is clearly not true. I have been praised as a ‘useful and productive citizen’ by a Mormon who, once she found out that I drank alcohol probably 4 or 5 days a week, is then convinced that I must be lying about one or the other since apparently, under that ideology it is supposed to be impossible to do both.

  4. Ulysses says

    I’m a male so abortion will never effect me personally, especially now that my wife is past menopause. However I’ve been pro-choice for all of my adult life because I know people who should not be parents, either at a particular time or permanently. If a woman becomes pregnant and does not want to give birth for whatever reason, then she should be allowed to have an abortion. The only person who should be involved in the decision whether or not to have an abortion is the woman. The only roles a doctor should have in the abortion is recommending an abortion for a medical reason or providing the abortion. Nobody else should have any standing in the woman’s decision, certainly not some old, male, professional bachelor who thinks gawd is anti-abortion.

  5. Margaret says

    How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

    How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is female?

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