The problem of restricted empathy

Ohio’s Republican senator Rob Portman has written an op-ed in today’s papers announcing that he is reversing his long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage (he also opposed gay people adopting children, was a co-sponsor of DOMA, and even supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage) and now supports it. The reason for his surprising move? The fact that his own son told him in February 2011 that he was gay.

“My son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay, and that it was not a choice, and that it’s just part of who he is, and that’s who he’d been that way for as long as he could remember,” Portman told CNN.

At that point, he began to view the 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 Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” he said, according to the Dispatch.

In explaining his change of heart, Portman finds justification in the Bible, just as he no doubt found biblical justification for his previous anti-gay positions. He even says that he now thinks same-sex marriage is a “tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.” So good bye Leviticus, hello mushy theology.

“The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue,” Portman said.

Interestingly, even though he says his son told him this in early 2011, he remained harsh in his views for another two years.

In 2011, Portman’s “openly hostile” record on gay rights led to hundreds of students at the University of Michigan objecting to the senator speaking at the school’s graduation ceremony.

One wonders if this was because he was considered a top vice-presidential candidate for the 2012 election and being in favor of same-sex marriage would have sunk his chances.

While I welcome anyone who has a change of heart and supports equality for the LGBT community, I am getting a little tired of people like Portman and Dick Cheney doing so only because they discover that their loved ones also belong to the group they once tried so hard to marginalize.

This phenomenon is quite common. People who favor draconian punishments for drug use suddenly become advocates of treatment programs when their sons are busted for it. Those who favor harsh prison treatments for even minor crimes suddenly discover the virtues of humane conditions and rehabilitation when their daughters get caught for serious crimes.

What is wrong with these people? Why is it that they can empathize with the needs of only the people they personally care about? Surely people should have enough empathy to put themselves in the shoes of others whom they do not know and see how they would feel in that situation?

Why can’t Portman, Cheney and others like them be like Nate’s father?


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Why is it that they can empathize with the needs of only the people they personally care about?

    Empathy vs. sympathy.

  2. stonyground says

    “What is wrong with these people?”

    The most likely answer is that they are not very intelligent.

  3. says

    They split the world into “really-truly people” (may family, friends, and those who think like me) and “sort-of-people-ish” (liberals, gays, democrats, criminals etc. who are obviously going to hell). The two groups are totally distinct. Then somebody they can’t ignore, a really, truly person, turns out to be in both groups.

    Shock! Horror! Cognative dissonance!

    Followed by moving the absolute minimum number of people into the group of really, truly people.

    You can’t be “in” unless there’s an outside.

  4. Nathan & the Cynic says

    It’s not great, but it’s still better than them never changing their mind at all.

  5. Kimpatsu says

    Mano, Michael Moore recognized this problem back in the 1990s and even wrote a “prayer” in which he begged god to make the children of theocratic Republicans gay and sick with various diseases requiring investment in research, on the grounds that this was the only way the Republicans were ever going to fund social programmes that needed funding.
    Plus ça change…

  6. eigenperson says

    Call me a cynic if you like, but I think Portman’s views changed more because public opinion is clearly turning in favor of gay marriage than because his son came out to him.

  7. briane says

    What is wrong with these people? Why is it that they can empathize with the needs of only the people they personally care about?

    Well, most people do care about their own kids, siblings, parents, good friends a lot more than they do about someone who’s starving to death in Africa, for example. I think part of it availability. If it’s just abstract, as in half the world away, or a political divide away, or some other place, then we can philosophize, religionize the problem away, but if the awful truth is staring you in the face, it pins your ears back. We are a tribal animal to a certain extent….


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