For Sen. Portman, Sen. Kirk and the rest of us: The next big step is the important one

Earlier this year, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., returned to Washington after a long, arduous recovery from the stroke he suffered in early 2012. In an interview with Natasha Korecki of the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirk said he:

President Barack Obama and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk greet one another at the State of the Union in January 2013.

[Plans] to take a closer look at funding of the Illinois Medicaid program for those with have no income who suffer a stroke, he said. In general, a person on Medicaid in Illinois would be allowed 11 rehab visits, he said.

“Had I been limited to that, I would have had no chance to recover like I did,” Kirk said. “So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.”

Kirk has the same federal health-care coverage available to other federal employees. He has incurred major out-of-pocket expenses, which have affected his savings and retirement, sources familiar with Kirk’s situation said.

Harold Pollack commended Kirk for those “wise words, sadly earned,” writing: “Such a profound physical ordeal – and one’s accompanying sense of profound privilege in securing more help than so many other people routinely receive — this changes a person.”

Steve Benen was also impressed with Kirk’s hard-won change of heart, but noted:

I do wish, however, that we might see similarly changed perspectives without the need for direct personal relevance. Many policymakers are skeptical about federal disaster relief until it’s their community that sees devastation. They have no interest in gay rights until they learn someone close to them is gay. And they’re unsure of the value of Medicaid until they see its worth up close.

Which brings us to this week, and the news that conservative Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio now supports marriage equality for same-sex couples. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s headline for Sabrina Eaton’s report tells the story, “Sen. Rob Portman comes out in favor of gay marriage after son comes out as gay“:

Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman on Thursday announced he has reversed his longtime opposition to same-sex marriage after reconsidering the issue because his 21-year-old son, Will, is gay.

Portman said his son, a junior at Yale University, told him and his wife, Jane, that he’s gay and “it was not a choice, it was who he is and that he had been that way since he could remember.”

“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 Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman told reporters in an interview at his office.

The conversation the Portmans had with their son two years ago led to him to evolve on the issue after he consulted clergy members, friends — including former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay — and the Bible.

This is a big deal. Portman is the first Republican senator to endorse marriage equality. And he wasn’t previously someone who seemed on the fence — he was adamantly, religiously opposed before.

So the first thing I want to say is congratulations, kudos, and thank you to Portman. I heartily second the commendations and praise he’s receiving from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry Ohio, and PFLAG.

For Portman, as for Kirk, an unbidden circumstance expanded his perspective of the world. That new, larger appreciation in turn expanded his understanding of what justice requires — of what justice requires for people who aren’t necessarily just like him.

This is one way we all learn — one way we all become bigger, better people. It is, for almost all of us, a necessary first step toward a more expansive empathy and a more inclusive understanding of justice. Even if it is only a first step, it is an unavoidable one, and we should celebrate the epiphany that challenging circumstance has allowed these senators.

What Steve Benen said about Kirk is still true for Portman. It is good to see his perspective change due to “direct personal relevance,” but it would be better if he could learn to expand his perspective even without it. That’s the next necessary step, the next epiphany awaiting these senators.

Kirk’s long recovery provided his “Aha!” moment when it comes to other people who are also recovering from a stroke. And Portman’s coming to grips with his son’s identity provided him with an “Aha!” moment when it comes to other LGBT people and their families. But it’s not yet clear that either senator has yet taken the next logical step — the next “Aha!” moment. The next step is the big one. It’s the realization that because I didn’t understand others’ situation or others’ perspective until I myself faced the same thing, I should then strive to listen and to learn and to see the world through others’ eyes so that I can better understand the world without having to experience every situation, every injustice, every ordeal personally.

This next step is necessary for justice, which can only come “When those who are not injured feel as indignant as those who are.”

That next step may seem obvious, but epiphanies always seem obvious in retrospect.

Until that next step occurs, though, the slightly expanded empathy of people like Kirk and Portman seems self-serving, like the “cowardice and hypocrisy” of the privileged, as Morf Morford describes it. They still seem to cling to a cramped, self-centered understanding of justice — one that can only grow when their own, personal interests require it to do so. It still lacks the ability to be “indignant” except when one is personally among the “injured.”

“Moral and political positions aren’t supposed to be something you only take when they’ll benefit you,” Mark Evanier wrote. Empathy becomes suspect when it coincides so closely with personal benefit. It begins to look like what Mark Schmitt calls “Miss America compassion“:

Their compassion seems so narrowly and literally focused on the specific misfortune that their family encountered. Having a child who suffers from mental illness would indeed make one particularly passionate about funding for mental health, sure. But shouldn’t it also lead to a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families, in all kinds of situations beyond their control, who need help from government? Shouldn’t having a son whose illness leads to suicide open your eyes to something more than a belief that we need more money for suicide help-lines? Shouldn’t it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party?

If we take the first step without ever taking the next step — changing our perspective only when “direct personal relevance” demands it and not otherwise — we can fall into what Matthew Yglesias describes as “The Politics of Narcissism“:

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.

… But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about.

Will Femia notes that this widely shared observation prompted an insightful — and darkly funny — meme about “hypothetical Republican empathy.”

“If empathy only extends to your flesh and blood, we gotta start shoving people into those families,” Rachel Maddow said.

“Now all we need is 59 more gay Republican kids,” Dave Lartigue wrote.

“Perhaps if we could get the Republican caucus to adopt gay, black Hispanic illegal-immigrant children, who will grow up to be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, we’d make some more social progress,” mistermix wrote.

“Eventually one of these Republican congressmen is going to find out his daughter is a woman, and then we’re all set,” Anil Dash tweeted.

And Andy Borowitz chimed in with “Portman Inspires Other Republicans to Stop Speaking to Their Children.”

Endless variations of that joke circulated this week because that joke offers limitless possibilities — as limitless as the stunted “hypothetical empathy” of “Miss America compassion” is limited.

That joke and Yglesias’ argument are correct. An empathy that never moves beyond that first step and that first epiphany is morally indistinct from selfishness. To take that first step without the next one is only to move from “me first” to “me and mine first.” (David Badash and Jonathan Chait also have insightful posts making this argument.)

But no one can take that next big step until they take the first one. So I’m less interested in criticizing Portman or Kirk or anyone else in their position than I am in figuring out how we can urge and encourage them to take that next big step. How can we facilitate the next epiphany?

That’s the bigger issue, the more important challenge. Ari Kohen tackles this challenge in a bookish post building on Richard Rorty’s thoughts. Kohen is interested most of all in how “to accomplish this progress of sentiments, this expanding of our sense of solidarity”:

The best way to convince the powerful that their way of thinking about others needs to evolve is to show them the ways in which individuals they consider to be “Other” are, in fact, much more closely akin to them than they ever realized. It is, in short, to create a greater solidarity between the powerful and the weak based on personal identification.

Rob Portman’s change of heart is a good example of the way in which we ultimately achieve a progress of sentiments that leads to the equal treatment of more and more people. Viewed in this way, it’s really not something people on the Left ought to be criticizing; it’s something we should be working to encourage for those without the sort of immediate personal connection that Portman fortunately had.

(Note that we are, yet again, confronted with the idea of ethics as a trajectory.)

The vital question, then, is how? How can we encourage “a progress of sentiments” along a trajectory “that leads to the equal treatment of more and more people”?

Part of the answer, I think, is to remember how we ourselves were encouraged along — how we ourselves each came to take that next step, how we ourselves came to have that second epiphany.

That’s the approach that Grace at Are Women Human? takes in a firm-but-generous post titled “Changes of heart and our better selves.” Grace highlights Portman’s case as an example of “the tensions between celebrating progress and recognizing that there’s still work to be done.” She draws on her own story and history for humility and perspective, and as a guide to helping others see and take the next steps in their journey:

How easy it is to say Portman … should have done better and forget that I wasn’t so different, not so long ago.

The honest truth: it was getting to know and love queer people that, more than anything else, led me away from the bigotry I’d been taught as faith. … It’s important for me not to forget this, or that it took the thought that my not-yet-born child might be transgender for me to realize that I needed to educate myself about gender identity. It would be dangerous to indulge the fiction that I’ve always held the moral “high ground.” …

That history — her own and that of others who have come to a more inclusive, expansive understanding of justice — informs the advice, and the warning, that follows:

Portman isn’t an exception in having, and indulging, the luxury of ignoring the consequences of politics that don’t affect him personally.

This is a feature, not a bug, of our culture and political system. Power is concentrated in the hands of people who routinely make policy on matters they have little experience or real stakes in. You don’t need any conscious malice in this setup to produce policy that has devastating effects on the communities these issues touch most directly (though there’s plenty of malice, too). All you need is a system run by people who can afford not to care that much about policies that mostly impact other people’s lives.

Which, I suppose, is why civil rights activism often depends on cultivating these very moments of identification with the “other,” on spontaneous and planned appeals to emotion and basic decency. Systemic lack of incentive to care has to be confronted with stories that get politicians or the public to care.

Emmitt Till’s open casket. Rosa Parks’ carefully planned protest of bus segregation – as a more “respectable” face of black resistance than Claudette Colvin. Hydeia Broadbent and Ryan White as the faces of children with HIV. DREAMers taking over public spaces, stories about families torn apart by racist, classist, unjust immigration policies.

… Rob Portman is not an exception. He’s the rule. I don’t say this to suggest that we cut him slack for finally arriving at a basic (and still incomplete) recognition of the humanity of queer people. Nor am I arguing that we shouldn’t critique the circumstances around his change of heart.

What I hope is that we don’t forget ourselves in these calls to do better. That we don’t fall into the deceptive confidence that because we know or do better, we’ve arrived…or forget how many of us had to change and grow to get to where we are now. We’re all capable of fooling ourselves into thinking our standpoints are clearly “rational” or “moral” when it comes to issues that don’t affect us.


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  • This sociopath continues to be disturbed at the lack of empathy demonstrated by hypothetically mentally fit people. I believe you hit the nail on the head when you say it’s not that much of an evolution to go from “me first” to “me and mine first.” I just can’t get behind praising someone for having decided that he values his possessions too.

  • I would argue that a lot of the difficulty we have in getting people to generalize empathy comes from social insularity. When someone is raised in a social environment where everyone has enough money, everyone is comfortable, and everyone can find gainful work with a minimum of effort, and their adult life only reinforces that, it becomes difficulty to identify with those who are uncomfortable, struggling to get by, and who cannot find work in spite of their efforts.

    This is one of the reasons why I think public education is important for children to participate in, and not just for its academic value. I think that exposure to diversity of people and their varied circumstances is an important part of a person’s education to ensure they grow up with a broad perspective which lets them make more empathetic connections to others.

    When you see people talk about public schools being places to “brainwash” their children, wanting to keep their children “safe” in isolated sectarian institutions, what they are really worried about is that those children will empathize with others unlike them, or more specifically unlike their parents. That in turn might lead them to disagree with their parents, and choose a path their parents did not.

    That scares a certain type of parent.

  • This makes me wonder if the signs that racism is becoming more socially acceptable again are linked to the drift back into segregated neighborhoods. It’s becoming easier to sustain the bubble.

  • I would argue that a lot of the difficulty we have in getting people to generalize empathy comes from social insularity.

    Signed and seconded.

    I’ve lost track of how many times I would deal with people online who lived their entire lives in a white, surburban existence and barely had any contact with minorities except through the mainstream media “lens” or through underground circulation of offensive stereotypes.

    And I must have seen a dozen refrains of the bootstraps speech where these folks would step up on their virtual soapbox and insist that if the lazy so-and-sos would get off welfare and quit crying discrimination at every step, they too could “just get a job” like these relatively pampered white folks did.

    God only knows they had no idea what it was like outside the USA, never mind within the borders of their own damn country. The very idea that I could conduct my daily life in relative freedom and without interference was incomprehensible to some of these guys (and they WERE almost all male!) who insisted that I lived under the burden of omgcrushing taxes in Soviet Canuckistan.

  • Carstonio

    Excellent. Fred said everything I wanted to say about Portman but didn’t know how to articulate.

    An overseas trip a few years ago increased my awareness of how much privilege can wrongly come with being male. I was the only man in the group and I had the least knowledge of the language there. But servers in restaurants would ignore the women and speak to me. The others in the group explained to me that the country’s society was dominated by men. I realized that this treatment of women as invisible probably happens all the time here and I often don’t notice it. This is my analogous way of saying that if I had a lesbian daughter or gay son, I hope I would treat hir better than Portman has treated his over the years, but I can’t assume out of pride that I would.

  • mcc

    I really want to stress Portman hasn’t done anything yet I, at least, consider worthy of praise. So he… said he’s in favor of marriage rights. Okay? What’s he going to *do* about it? If he were like, a musician, or a columnist or something, maybe I’d be impressed at a mere statement. But he is a U.S. Senator. He has an exceptional ability to put opinions into action. On that note–

    “So I’m less interested in criticizing Portman or Kirk or anyone else in their position than I am in figuring out how we can urge and encourage them to take that next big step. How can we facilitate the next epiphany?”

    Well, here’s a next *little* step I’d like to see. I don’t think the Senate will be voting on marriage equality anytime soon. But one thing which *is* likely, according to the NCTE and Tammy Baldwin, is a vote on ENDA, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. This is a bill which is wildly popular with the public, and supported by President Obama; the only things holding it back from passage are for a mere *five* Republican Senators to *restrain themselves from blocking the bill from a vote* when it comes up for “cloture”; and the Republican-controlled House (and even there, the biggest problem might be getting Boehner to bring it up for a vote). The Senate is hoping to attempt to pass it this year despite the expectation the House will block it. Well, whatever. Portman’s in the Senate. And he’s never spoken in favor of ENDA. Last time anyone asked, about a year ago, he spoke against it, he said he was afraid if ENDA passed it would lead to lawsuits. (Imagine that.) So, something Portman *could* do next is vote for ENDA. He could cosponsor it. He could push Boehner or other Republican Senators to allow it through to a vote. These are some things I would consider actual actions and not just empty words.

    But if he *won’t* do that? Well, then things are worse than Fred even suggests. Because what that would tell us is that Portman didn’t even have “an aha moment with respect to other LGBT people and their families”. It would mean he had an aha moment with respect to his son, and no other member of the LGBT community. It would mean he wants his son, a gay cisgender male who as the son of a wealthy Senator will never have problems finding a job, to be able to get the benefits of marriage. But any LGBT person who has bigger problems than whether they can get married? No empathy there, at least, certainly not a priority for him.

    Along similar lines, something which been reported virtually not at all is that although Rob says he’s in favor of legal gay marriage, in the same interview where he “came out” he said he DOESN’T think the Supreme Court should legalize gay marriage nationwide when it takes up the question this month. The uncharitable way to interpret this is he “supports” “marriage” but not enough to support actual tactics to legalize marriage. But even the charitable interpretation is that we again have a situation where his empathy extends only to the subset of LGBTs who resemble his son– who again is from a wealthy family and has the economic freedom to just go ahead and move to a marriage state once DOMA is repealed– and those poor souls living in Texas or Arizona, who in a state-by-state legalization effort will be getting state recognition of their relationships somewhere around 2124, just aren’t interesting enough to go to bat for.

  • I would argue that a lot of the difficulty we have in getting people to generalize empathy comes from social insularity.

    That’s probably understandable when talking about the average person. When talking about an elected figure, that’s a bit harder to swallow. It would require me to accept, for example, that before Senator Portman’s son came out to him, the Senator never once had a conversation with a single one of the doubtlessly thousands of LGBT people he’s supposed to represent. I might be able to believe that’s true, but it wouldn’t exactly paint him in a good light at all, nor would I find it all that understandable.

  • Also, his son came out two years ago and he only voiced this recently.

  • MaryKaye

    Requiring college students to spend a term abroad (NOT as a missionary) might help. (I know missionaries can learn about the cultures they visit but it seems all too common that they don’t–they remain in their bubble throughout.) High school students might be even better. I don’t know how to fund it, though.

  • Heh, yep, when this story (the Portman one) started making the rounds, I dug up your Kirk article and linked it in a couple of places, including comments here. Seemed quite apropos, indeed.

  • rizzo

    I see the lack of empathy in the people I know who lean hard right too. They’re the ones who were saying we should “glass the whole mideast” with nukes instead of invading Iraq. They’re the ones who can’t put themselves in the shoes of someone who grows up with nothing but dirt and decides becoming a suicide bomber is a good idea. They’re the ones who don’t understand why, since they have a drivers license, some people might have a hard time getting one.

    That’s why I hang out with them, to try to add some empathy and perspective to their lives.

  • Consider though that Senator Portman is probably part of one of those insular communities, and grew up on one. People can change as adults, but a lot of their perspective “calcifies” after childhood and becomes much less fluid, even if later exposed to factors which would encourage their perspective to change.

    Anyway, if he still is in one of those insulated communities, and within that community being gay or just being sympathetic and supportive of gays is considered a Bad Thing, then changing his perspective might still happen, but voicing that perspective might be difficult. He risks alienation, denouncement, loss of career and social options, etc. I do not mean to imply that this is any more difficult than actually being gay in such a situation, but it is on the same continuum.

    One of the things about this though, is that yeah, a lot of people in this insulated social community will have a lower opinion of Portman because of this, but on the other hand their opinion of other people coming out to support gay rights will be slightly better. By the time it seems like being homophobic is a minority, the whole of them will “switch sides” as that becomes the “deviant” position and few of them want to risk that kind of alienation.

  • Shaking hands with $RANDOM_”OTHER”_PERSON is miles different from really seeing their life and understanding all the little pieces of their life which are different from one’s own.

    I can say from my own experience that acceptance of coming out is as much an evolving process as coming out itself is. I wouldn’t twit the Senator too hard for not being all WOO RAH RAH the very next day after his son came out to him.

  • Shaking hands with $RANDOM_”OTHER”_PERSON is miles different from really
    seeing their life and understanding all the little pieces of their life
    which are different from one’s own.

    Yes, and if shaking hands with $RANDOM_”OTHER”_PERSON is seen as sufficient work to adequately represent said person and other like said, I’d say we have a problem.

    I wouldn’t twit the Senator too hard for not being all WOO RAH RAH the very next day after his son came out to him.

    That’s fine, as I’m not asking you to. But I get to chose how “hard” I twit him.

  • Random_Lurker

    Insularity is not the only thing going on.

    My older brother has essentially spent the last four years hopping from one underpaying job to another, with months of gap in between. Meanwhile, his wife sits at home with untreated depression because they both refuse to acknowledge that it’s an illness that requires treatment. Yet he still claims that work is available for everyone who tries hard enough to get it. He works his ass off, is poor as dirt, and holds a grudge against other people who are also poor as dirt because he thinks they are too lazy to get a job.

    I honestly cannot understand how he does that.

  • Soviet Canuckistan is actually more economically free than the U.S., according to the Heritage Foundation. Even it’s “fiscal freedom” rating is better than that of the U.S.

  • I have long argued that churches must teach that the works of mercy are requirements for anyone who would call themselves Christians. They are not suggestions. They are not nice to do. People must engage in them in regularly at some point in their lives order to be in good standing in the church. Because it’s not just about meeting needs – although that’s important. Performing works of mercy – rather than just sending checks – means coming into close contact with people who are suffering and in need. And that close contact does change you, it upends your assumptions and it prods you to action. If every church made service of this sort a cornerstone of their teaching/preaching and expectations, it would revolutionize everything.

  • Yes, and if shaking hands with $RANDOM_”OTHER”_PERSON is seen as
    sufficient work to adequately represent said person and other like said,
    I’d say we have a problem.

    Precisely the point I was trying to get at. People like that who live in insular milieu, who believe they know all they need to know about “Othered” populations on the basis of inadequate information and popular stereotypes, often seem to think their superficial understanding substitutes for the real thing.

    My parents took a couple years to really get used to my QUILTBAGness, by the way.

  • LL

    I am not a very “nice” person (as a few here might wish to verify), but I like to think I’m a decent person. But even I don’t have to experience something personally to feel empathy for someone facing it, whether it’s the difficulty of “coming out” or suffering a stroke.

    So if I, hardened misanthrope that I am, can empathize, why can’t these people?

    Because they’re assholes. If you can’t imagine that something is bad without experiencing it yourself, you’re not just clueless, you’re an asshole. It requires abundant assholishness to not be willing (and it is a matter of willingness, not ability) to imagine how much it would suck to be gay in a country where people feel free to physically attack you or suffer a stroke and have no help whatsoever in recovery. Or to be a rape victim.

    So I’d respect both these dudes a lot more (ie, give them any respect at all) if they’d both just admit: “You know all that shit I said about gay people/Medicare before? That was stupid. And I was stupid. And not only stupid, but an asshole. I was an asshole to say that stuff. And people who still say it today are assholes, too.”

    I know that’s never gonna happen, but it’d be nice if some politician had the guts to say it. To use the word “asshole.” Because “jerk” isn’t a strong enough word.

  • It is certainly true that the older a person is, most of the time, the higher the threshhold before they reconsider their positions. It’s entirely possible that if Portman were 20 years younger, it wouldn’t have taken his son coming out to convince him to reevaluate his position. Contrariwise, if his son had waited another decade before coming out, perhaps the Senator would have disowned his son rather than change his mind. No way to know, of course.

  • I wanted to make note of the age thing primarily in support of my argument that the best way to get people to emphasize with a wider spectrum of people is to expose them to that wider spectrum early in their life, as they will use that to help build their own world view going forward. Allowing them to remain isolated within a homogeneous social environment will make generalizing their empathy as adults much more difficult.

  • banancat

    It’s weird. I’m very empathetic for no specific reason. I never had a big, moving point in my life that made me empathetic and caring. I have a lot of privileges and haven’t faced too much adversity.

    There was a time when I was less empathetic, but those were my early teens and I grew out of it very fast. By the time I was 16 I was already well on my way to being progressive and caring about all people.

    So what makes me different? Why was it so easy for me to get to this point, but so hard for others? It would be nice to think I’m super special in some way, but I’m really not. I think about this frequently and I can’t come up with an answer. What exactly made me care about other people who aren’t part of my small in-group? If I could figure that out, maybe I could convince others to care too.

  • Gotchaye

    Surely a Senator stating a position, even absent any action, is more impressive than a musician stating a position.

    Even if Portman does nothing more, he’ll have done some good by being a prominent elected Republican in favor of gay marriage. Just by existing he gives credibility to forces within the Republican party that are trying to persuade elected Republicans that it’s in their self-interest to be pro- gay marriage. To the extent that he looks to be safe from a serious primary challenge going forward (while he doesn’t actually have to face one for years, people will be watching to see whether Republicans in Ohio approve of him), he will be solid evidence that Republicans can buck their base on this and keep their seats.

    He absolutely deserves criticism for not going farther, but it takes a little courage to be the most progressive on an issue of all Republicans holding national office. He’s not merely marginally better than other Republicans on this – if every Congressman had Portman’s position on gay marriage it would be infinitely easier to get a vote for ENDA in the House.

  • I know why it’s hard for me, but I’m curious how others manage to fine tune their empathy to such specific targets. It’s always seemed to me that someone should either be able to empathize with everyone or no one — not both, depending on circumstances/choice/external pressures.

  • Come to think of it, I’m also concerned that this in no way will reflect on their views of other typical Republican policies. They might vote in favor of gay marriage and Medicaid, and then turn around and continue the fight against abortion, undocumented workers, the separation of church and state…

  • My parents took a couple years to really get used to my QUILTBAGness, by the way.

    That doesn’t really surprise me. It was roughly fourteen years after I came out before I felt like I could talk about my love life with my mother without the general atmosphere turning rather chilly.

  • It’s amazing how far-right parties manage to get poor people to vote against their own interests.

  • Simple. He’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do, and the only reason it isn’t working, he has been told, is that others are holding him back. It’s the crabs in a bucket scenario, except he’s been taught that liberals and the left wing are the crabs, somehow passing policies which keep his wages low and his benefits minimal.

    Add a little historical revisionism and every third Republican supporter out there seems to have completely and utterly forgotten the existence of a president between Clinton and Obama. The economy was fine under Clinton and then kasplat OBAMA.

  • banancat

    It’s the fundamental attribution error, the most common cognitive bias. I think just being aware of it would make most people less influenced by it, but good luck getting intro to psychology as part of public school curricula when we can barely manage to get the basics required.

  • One of the things I have heard said about the Republican vote-building strategies is that they are really, really good at getting people to vote for their aspirations. They run on a platform of “Vote in favor of the successful, because you too might become successful one day!”

    There is actually nothing wrong with that message in itself, it is important for people to have goals and motivate people to reach for them. As Obama’s 2008 campaign demonstrated, hope is a great motivator.

    Where Republicans fall flat is that they assume that the problem that they have outreaching to minorities is that their message of aspiration is getting distorted and coming out all garbled, and if they can clear up the noise those who have no where left to go but up will start voting Republican more often.

    That is a fine theory, but unfortunately part of forming policy around success is that those who are already successful tend to solidify their success by making it harder to compete with them or harder to penetrate into the same circles as them. The minorities who have little see the Republican platform and they see not opportunities for them to aspire to success, but structural issues that keep them from succeeding.

    If Republicans can open more opportunities to those who have little to start with (say by getting behind comprehensive public education for just one example) they might fare better.

  • Sadly, many churches hammer the “salvation by faith alone” drum in such a way as to imply that good works are irrelevant except in as much as they encourage those they help to “come to Jesus”.

    I would make the same argument that you do, that doing good works makes you a better person, it strengthens the faith that one trusts for salvation.

    Plus, doing good feels good.

  • MaryKaye

    I had been making a lot of fairly psychologically complex roleplaying characters once, and thinking hard about “what would I have to do to get inside this character’s skin?” And then I had a moment of insight–not about one of my characters, but about a guy who shot at abortion doctors. I saw him from the inside, how he was a hero, how important being a hero was to him. I was shaken.

    I think that the act of extending empathy *to the enemy* is particularly scary. It’s a very real risk–that you might change in ways that would offend your own values, that you might lose the will to fight in what you believe to be a real and important fight, that you might become One of Them. It’s not so hard if you haven’t already defined the Other as the Enemy, but in my example I clearly had.

    I used to belong to a discussion group that talked about psychologically intense roleplaying–about trying to really get inside the head of your characters–and we ran into people fairly often who toyed with the idea, got an experience or two with it, and then got really scared and quit. They felt Something Bad Would Happen. I won’t say they were wrong.

  • In roleplaying context, I’d call it more method acting than empathizing, but I think the two are probably pretty closely linked, and I have some anecdotal evidence — I’ve never had it happen to me. I’ve played some twisted characters, but it was always a simulation for me wherein I saw their thoughts and actions as a script to be followed while remaining in-character. If method acting and empathy are linked, then I should have just as much trouble with one as I do the other, and that does seem to be the case.

  • … And now we get to see the flip-side of this. thinkprogress has a small collection of Republicans opposing bills or trying to cut benefits based purely on “Well, I would never need this.”

  • arcseconds

    I doubt social conservatives think of themselves as ‘supposed to be representing’ LGBT people, any more than they think of themselves as supposed to be representing criminals or illegal immigrants. It’s technically true that they’ve got such people in their districts, but in no way do they see themselves as representing their interests.

    It would be highly surprising in any of the countries I’m at all familiar with to know that a representative had gone out of their way to get to know criminals because they felt they needed to understand all sectors of their electorate, and they felt that criminals were one they least understood or had anything to do with.

    (not that I think this is a bad idea at all, but it would also be an extremely politically risky move, since even many on the left think you shouldn’t show any sympathy for such dreck)

    I’d also expect to find that representatives are actually more socially isolated in many respects than average people, particularly in the USA. They tend to be a lot richer than everyone else, and their strongest interactions are likely to be with the upper echelons of their party, other representatives, and maybe the odd civil servant. This is particularly true of people from political families, of course.

  • Dave Lartigue

    I probably should have been more understanding towards Portman than I was in my blog post (thank you, as always, for the link) but I have just had it up to here with both people who can’t get upset about something until it affects them and people who want a prize for exhibiting the absolute bare minimum of decent behavior. If Portman goes into Congress and tries to become a right-wing force for equal rights then hey, I’m gonna cheer him on, but he has already pretty much said that gay rights aren’t really his thing, he’s more of an economics guy. It’s nice to see someone on the right finally acknowledge that gay people might share some DNA with the rest of us, but this still just seems to be a case of “My son wants something and by gum, Republican sons don’t go without what they want!”

  • DCFem

    Reading this makes me want to thank Rob Portman and every other person/politician whose views have evolved because my views about them have evolved. Instead of seeing people like Rob Portman as bigots who only care about people related to them, he has helped me understand how people start to climb out from under the ignorance and bigotry they were taught. Gays are not the only ones with stories like this. I have heard white people say they were taught all sorts of horrible things about blacks and then they got to know someone black and realized they were wrong. The fact that peoples views can evolve is something worth remembering. Thank you for making me less smug. Because as a person who was never taught to hate LGBT people, I have spent a lot of time screaming about “hateful bigots” who are too stupid to see the humanity of their fellow humans and accord them the equal rights they deserve as Americans. This reminded me to be less judgmental and more understanding of people who were (unfortunately) taught to hate. It is hard to do sometimes, but I think it is the right approach.

  • DCFem

    How is that working for you? Are they capable of listening to you? Have any of them changed their minds? I am genuinely curious because as a person of color, right wingers do not acknowledge my existence so I have never had the opportunity to ask them the questions you’re asking. Honestly, I think of people like you and I feel as though you are fantastically well meaning, but beating your head against a brick wall. So please disabuse me of that notion and tell me that you’ve had some success knocking some sense into teavangelicals.

  • AnonaMiss

    This may be out of line and if so please tell me to stuff it, but given that this is becoming a common reaction from you, I wonder if it’s possible that your initial diagnosis was mostly a result of your environment at the time/a temporary survival strategy.

    Though that does bring up an interesting point – the culture tends to speak ofof personality disorders as immutable, but I wonder what kind of data there is on remission.

  • G127

    Why do we have to be so cynical about these things. For years we’ve been hearing about the new LGBT strategy to raise public support for gay-marriage: make sure people get to know gay-persons. Let them see that they are nice enjoyable couples that want to raise nice decent kids. The whole strategy is based about personal contacts: and finally, in 2012 it worked. People voted for same-sex marriage.

    Now the same strategy works on a senator and suddenly the reason for changing his mind is wrong. And he should also suddenly change his views on anything else.

    Look: Portman probably believes in ‘small government’: slashing the budgets for welfare will, in his eyes, contribute to job growth (and less poor people). It will, for him, be something that is good for us all. Now; granted those policies are stupid, and have no way of working. Which is, indeed something they would know if they had any personal experience with poor people, but they are not necessary malign. In fact: considering his conversion in the LGBT debate, it seems he might be open to change. We should celebrate that.

    When someone changes his mind on something for the better: I just wish we could congratulate them and move on, without saying ‘it’s never enough’. How will you encourage anyone to follow suit if they know they will just get more attention for the way they change their minds, then the fact that they do.

  • You’re not the first to put forward the idea. I can’t show you the inside of my head, but in this case, Internet psychology kinda fails for the opposite reason — I can’t prove that I’m not still afflicted. I think my behavior is reformed, but I still have a number of problems and bad days where my impulse controls are weaker and I’m liable to say or do things while thinking the consequences are no great deterrent.

    There’s very little data on the subject of treatment for personality disorders, let alone APD (which is kind of held up as the worst personality disorder for obvious reasons). In fact, a lot of my teaching revolved around how hard it was not only to get people with personality disorders to seek treatment, but also how hard it is to get them to internalize the idea that their beliefs and behavior are at odds with society. Heck, there was a big section on how hard it is to trust an APD patient who seems to be cooperating with the psychiatrist as they’re probably just telling zer what they want to hear. As far as I know, I’m one of the rare flukes who internalized the need to change and now uses the rules used to enact that change to judge how others conform to the needs of society.

  • AnonaMiss

    And of course it’s complicated further by the fact that neurotypical people also have days of poor impulse control or lapses in empathy. (I wish PMS jokes weren’t inherently sexist, because this would be a great place for one).

    But since everyone’s only ever inside their own head, it’s hard to say where the boundaries of neurotypicality lie, and where each of us is located in relation to those boundaries.

  • Or (as I’m wondering, now that Invisible Neutrino’s got me looking up neuropsychology research papers, in particular this one) one has to wonder if it’s not a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, wherein atypical brain formation may be caused by or cause certain personality disorders. There was a very real concern that I might have some form of brain damage when I was young and had a severe exposure to carbon monoxide; for all we know, there’s a link there.

    FWIW, I had a MRI done about a decade ago and nothing was pointed out as being unusual, although they were looking for any cause for my migraine headaches at the time.

  • Carstonio

    You might have a point if Portman hasn’t used his opposition to same-sex marriage to win votes. Obama had opposed it as well, but he always implied that proponents had a valid moral and legal case. He didn’t warn of diabolical homosexual agendas, or predict doom ‘n’ gloom for children and families. (Years ago I heard the theory that Obama really favored marriage equality but was playing a cautious game, encouraging the rise in support in subtle ways. Maybe.)

    My core issue with Portman is that he doesn’t seem to recognize that demagoguery of any type is wrong. He still seems willing to demonize other groups like feminists or undocumented aliens. Ultimately it shouldn’t be necessary to know different types of people personally before valuing the principle of human rights for all types – I’m tempted to label that as a moral failing.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Michael Moore has some mean but funny things to say about “Republican Empathy” (Conservative Compassion?) back around the time Dick Cheney’s daughter came out as gay:

    “A Prayer to Afflict the Comfortable with as Many Afflictions as Possible.”

    Dear Lord (God/Yahweh/Buddha/Bob/Nobody):

    We beseech You, O merciful One, to bring comfort to those who suffer today for whatever reason You, Nature, or the World Bank has deemed appropriate. We realize, O heavenly Father, that You cannot cure all the sick at once–that would surely empty out the hospitals the good nuns have established in Your name. And we accept that You, the Omniscient One, cannot eliminate all the evil in the world, for that would surely put Thee out of a job.

    Rather, dear Lord, we ask that You inflict every member of the House of Representatives with horrible, incurable cancers of the brain, penis, and hand (though not necessarily in that order). We ask, Our Loving Father, that every senator from the South be rendered addicted to drugs and find himself locked away for life. We beseech You to make the children of every senator in the Mountain Time Zone gay–really gay. Put the children of senators from the East in a wheelchair and the children of senators from the West in a public school. We implore, Most Merciful One, just as You turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, that You turn the rich–all the rich–into paupers and homeless, wiping from their positions of power, and yea, may they walk through the valley and into the darkness of a welfare
    office. Condemn them to a life of flipping burgers and dodging bill collectors. Let them hear the wailing of the innocents as they sit in the middle seat of row 43 in coach and let them feel the gnashing of teeth that are abscessed and rotted like the 108 million who have no dental coverage.

    Heavenly Father, we pray that all white leaders (especially the alumni of Bob Jones University) who believe black people have it good these days be risen from their sleep tomorrow morning with their skin as black as a stretch limo so that they may enjoy the riches and reap the bountiful fruits of being black in America. We humbly request that Your anointed ones, the bishops of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, be smitten with ovaries and unplanned pregnancies and a pamphlet about the rhythm method.

    Finally, dear Lord, we call upon You to have Jack Welch swim the Hudson he has polluted, to force Hollywood’s executives to sit and watch their own movies over and over and over, to have Jesse Helms kissed on the lips by a man of his own gender, to make Chris Matthews go mute, to let the air–quickly–out of Bill O’Reilly, and turn to ash all who are responsible for those who smoke in my office. Oh, yes, and unleash with a fury of a plague of locusts to nest in the toupee of the Senate Minority Leader from the great state of Mississippi.

    May You hear our prayers and grant them, O King of Kings, Who sits on high and watches over us as best You can, considering what screwups we are. Grant us some relief from our misery and suffering, as we know that the men You shall smite will be swift in their efforts to rid themselves of their misfortune, which in turn may rid us of ours.

    With this we pray, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy-Spirit-Who-Used-to-Be-a-Ghost, Amen.

    (I hope the formatting on this doesn’t come out TOO screwed up…)

  • Good message I’m very involved in supporting the gay community – why, in a nushell….

    My PHD brother is very wierd, hard to expalin> people said he was gay, my parents were beserk and I didnt know what to do.

    its much to late to help him when I finally found out he ist gay, but has obsessive compulsive disorder. His life has been ruined.

    Then I remember a fun loving youngster – the adopted sun of a cousin of mine. As he grew older he became depressed worse and worse. Ultimately he committed suicide at age 30

    I never knew why until recently another cousin told me he “didnt want to date girls”

    Homophobia isnt just an animus against gay people . My cousin joined about 2500 who every year commit suicide because they are treated like uknow what because they are gay. Enough.

    Marriage for gays is about respect. breaking down the beliefs and poison in our society htat destroy lives

    Above my desk hangs an email from a 28 year old gay friend , it says”for the first time in my life I feel like a real citizen (since MD passed marriage for gays.

    this guy tried to commit suicide with pills twice and the second time his parents were told he wouldnt recover but he did.

    He’s lost overall about 6 years of his life, at 28 he finally is finishing up his associates degree and intends to become a psychologist who will focus on saving gay kids and teaching them how to rebuild their self esteem.

  • REligious conservative parents. who dont want their kids playing with or knowing gay kids. Not because gay is “catchy” but because they might discover there is nothing wrong with gay kids and plenty wrong with their own parents/ religion

    Try ths one. I asked a 24 year old gay who seemed depressed if he was suicidal

    His repsonse – “I wouldnt give my catholic parents the pleasure of seeing me dead”

    So much for the church that claims to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

  • the hertage foudation is about as right wing as you can get. When Obama became president the woman who headed the local repub party group and worked at the heritage foundation said “he was

    worse then hitler”

    Thats not only crazy but guess what hitler did to the gays – about 50000 to 100000 of them.

  • mental illness is embarrasssing to most families – thats the root of it. We need to teach everyone to understand and be willing to contact a psych if necessary

  • kasplart ??? it was fine under clinton except for the internet bubble which worked itself out

    It collapsed under Bush. End of story