“They’re Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!”: On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!

For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.

The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.

For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”

Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)

Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kos says:

The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.

And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:

Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.

I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?

I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.

They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.

Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.

If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?

Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?

The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.

Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to? 

Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.

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* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.

** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.

There’s Nothing “Sad” About Online Sex

Many pearls have been clutched over the actions or inactions of the various women involved in Anthony Weiner’s latest fall from grace (pearls that could’ve really been spared for Weiner himself). Susan Jacoby, with whom I generally agree on things and whom I respect very much, wrote an article for the New York Times that focuses on the motivations that the recipients of Weiner’s photographic gifts had in engaging in these online flirtations with him:

People ask how Mr. Weiner’s wife, the soulfully beautiful and professionally accomplished Huma Abedin, can stay with him. My question is why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers.

[…]The morality of virtual sex, as long as no one is cheating on a real partner, is not what bothers me. What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work. Sex with strangers online amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content. Erotic play without context becomes just a form of one-on-one pornography.

[…]As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad to imagine a vibrant young woman sitting alone at her computer and turning herself into a sex object for a man (or a dog) she does not know — even if she is also turning him into a sex object. Twentieth-century feminism always linked the social progress of women with an expanding sense of self-worth — in the sexual as well as intellectual and professional spheres. A willingness to engage in Internet sex with strangers, however, expresses not sexual empowerment but its opposite — a loneliness and low opinion of oneself that leads to the conclusion that any sexual contact is better than no contact at all.

As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad that many people are still unable to grasp this basic truth: what gets you off is not what gets others off, and vice versa, and that is okay. So Jacoby doesn’t get the appeal of online flirting/sexting. That’s totally fine. But she leaps to huge assumptions about the women who do get the appeal: that they’re turning themselves into sex objects, that they’re “lonely” and have a “low opinion” of themselves, that they’re settling for some substandard type of sexuality.

Actually, if you’ve read anything else by Jacoby, this should not be that surprising. I read her book The Age of American Unreason recently and, although I loved the book overall, learned a lot, and laughed out loud a few times, I was also shocked by how many of her arguments hinged on the notion that digital technology is…not bad, per se, but at the very least problematic in ways that non-digital technologies and mediums are not.

Interestingly, Jacoby also insists firmly that e-books are a failure, and notes that serious readers could never enjoy them. The book was published in 2008, before e-books really got off the ground. Nowadays I know nobody who can afford and access e-books but has chosen not to; although I (and many others) still prefer paper books, the e-book market has definitely exploded and Jacoby’s opposition to them looks a little silly 5 years later.

Anyway, I could write a whole post critiquing Jacoby’s views on technology, so I’ll just say that her take on online sex is not surprising at all. But it suggests a certain empathic blind spot, an inability to see that different folks like different strokes.

These two sentences are the ones I especially disagree with: “What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work.”

The view that online communication is a sad, pathetic attempt to “substitute” artificial interaction for genuine interaction is prevalent in many books and articles about digital technology. Cell phones, texting, iPods, tablets, instant messaging, online forums, blogging, and more have all been accused of being mere “substitutions” for “real” interaction, and virtual sex is clearly cut from the same cloth.

Here’s the thing, though. The several things:

  • Not everyone has access to a supportive, in-person community, including willing sexual partners who are into the things you are into. For most of my college years, I did not.
  • Anything, digital or not, can potentially be used to avoid meaningful human interaction: alcohol, drugs, books, schoolwork, work work, hobbies, exercise. The problem isn’t the medium; it’s the fact that a person feels so isolated from their community or so incapable of connecting to people that they turn to these things instead.
  • Although being physically with people, especially if sex is involved, obviously has huge advantages, interacting with people online also has huge advantages that Jacoby is ignoring, especially for people who are shy or picky. It’s a tradeoff and we should trust adults to be able to make their own decisions about whether those tradeoffs are worth it for them.

I’ll expand on each of those points. First of all, people who clutch pearls about digital technology “replacing” in-person interaction are all going off of the assumption that everyone has in-person interaction to replace to begin with. While it’s sort of a truism that Anyone Can Find Friends If They Just Try, that’s really not the case. The fewer privileges you have, the less you fit into the community you happen to be living in, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to find close, supportive friends and partners in meatspace.

Although I’m very privileged and lucky in many ways, I screwed up my choice of college and ended up somewhere I didn’t fit in at all. For many years, my most meaningful connections with people were online. Those friends kept me sane last summer when even the few friends I had at school were gone. Why should I assume that my fairly shallow-by-comparison meatspace friendships mean more than these close, loving, but far-away friends?

Second, technology can be used unhealthily and/or as a means of avoidance, but so can lots of other things. As a child, I was painfully shy and had a lot of trouble finding common ground with other kids. So I read a lot. And I didn’t even read novels, which might’ve helped me understand people; I read nonfiction about science, mostly. I literally took encyclopedias to birthday parties and read them instead of playing with other kids.

Was I using books to avoid people? Absolutely. Was anyone disturbed by this? Not really, because I wasn’t using the dreaded technology. On the other hand, though, my parents and teachers were probably right to let this fly. I got older, met kids who were as nerdy as I was, and made lots of friends and started dating and gradually became more comfortable with groups of people. Nowadays I’m still an introvert, but a very friendly one who’s fine with public speaking and code-switching and all sorts of other formerly scary things that adults have to do socially.

The point is that it’s not always easy to tell whether or not someone is using something as “avoidance,” but even if they are, that’s between them and their therapist. Jacoby simply leapt to the conclusion that the women who do sexual stuff online are avoiding “real” sex and that they’re “lonely” and have low self-esteem, but there isn’t any data to warrant these conclusions.

Third, Jacoby is only looking at the disadvantages of online sex, not the advantages. This gives her a skewed image of what it’s like. Everyone is, I’m sure, familiar with those disadvantages, so I’ll list some advantages I can think of:

  • It’s much less risky, especially for women who know they’ll get blamed if they’re assaulted while meeting with a partner.
  • It’s possible to interact with partners who don’t live near you.
  • You can try out different sexual personae and identities, which is especially useful for people who are unsure about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • You can have the thrill of doing something that’s taboo.
  • It’s easier to schedule than in-person dates.
  • There’s less pressure if you’re shy or unsure what you want.
  • You don’t have to worry about STI transmission or pregnancy.
  • For some people, showing sending nude photos of themselves or being naked in front of a webcam is simply hot, so the technology becomes the actual medium through which arousal happens.

That’s why I think the biggest flaw of this article is that Jacoby didn’t interview anyone. Yes, it’s an op-ed, not a story, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research. Had Jacoby asked at least a few people who have sex through technology why they do it, she probably would’ve yielded answers other than “Because I’m lonely” and “Because I have no self-esteem.”

But even if those were the answers, again, the problem isn’t the Internet. The problem is that we do, in fact, live in a society where many people are lonely and have low self-esteem. We should help them. And in the meantime, if meeting sexual partners through the Internet is helping them, why the hell not?

I’m sure, though, that most people who have virtual sex don’t do it because they have no self-esteem. They do it because it’s fun, because it turns them on, because they haven’t met anyone who lives in their area yet, because they don’t want to deal with risky situations, because it lets them be someone other than who they are in person, and any number of other reasons. Human behavior, especially when it comes to sex, is much more complex than Jacoby suggests that it is, especially when you consider that what seems pathetic and sad to one person may be empowering and life-altering to another.

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Cautionary note: none of this is to suggest that all sex is automatically Good and Empowering and Problem-Free just because someone has chosen it. My point is only to push back against the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with/pathetic about online sex. Jacoby may be correct to worry about sexual objectification, but it seems patronizing to me to insist that women who are having a good time are actually objectifying themselves and this is therefore “sad.” A thorny issue, to be sure, that will probably warrant its own post.