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!

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.