Well, That's Me Told

[Content Note: Homophobia.]

Will Saletan is outraged that "lefty bloggers" are less than compassionate about Senator Rob Portman's (personal) reversal on same-sex marriage after his son disclosed that he is gay. He links to my piece, among others—and, naturally, I get the usual scold for having used "expletives"—and tells us to "look in the mirror" and accuses us of not understanding "Portman, conservatives, empathy, or how people change."

Mr. Saletan, I understand empathy and its crucial role in how people change.
Empathy is what happens when racist white parents discover their child's best friend at school is black, and they begin to revisit their prejudices. Empathy is what happens when a homophobic woman finds out that male coworker she really likes is gay, and she begins to reconsider all those biases she's held for so long. Empathy is what happens when real life, real people, prove obviously, demonstrably wrong all those conservative bedtime stories about gays and immigrants and castrating feminazis that go bump in the night.

Empathy is what happens when good conservatives, who have long mistaken patronizing pity for compassion, suddenly realize that being white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or Christian, or rich, or thin, or able-bodied, or USian, or educated, or in any other way not Other, doesn't make them better people; it merely makes them privileged people.

Empathy is what turns people into progressives.
Please do me the favor of not lecturing me on empathy.

But I also understand privilege—a word that appears nowhere in Saletan's piece—and how it works. I understand systemic and personal segregation, and how privileged populations can go their entire lives never meaningfully interacting with people from marginalized populations, nor becoming intimately familiar with the lived experience and conversant in the culture of marginalized people.

I know that if Senator Rob Portman, or any other privileged straight person, has been able to live to the ripe old age of 57 without ever being personally moved by seeing and hearing and feeling down to your bones how the institutional oppression of queer USians renders them second-class citizens and affects their lives in big and small ways every day of their lives, that is not an accident.

That is a life of detached privilege by design.

There are people, yes, who wait for opportunities for empathy to drop into their laps, who extend empathy only in obligation. But there are also people who actively seek out opportunities for empathy, who consciously try to move beyond the privileges that afford them easy lives of willful ignorance.

Lack of empathy for marginalized populations is a luxury that the people in those populations don't have, and I will not regret feeling contempt for anyone, particularly not a person who seeks a life in public office where he is tasked with representing a diverse constituency, who basks in that luxury until proximity obliges him to practice empathy.

One doesn't have to have a gay relative to have empathy for gay people. And let us not pretend that every parent of a gay kid magically becomes gay-positive, either. Empathy is a decision, a choice. And it can be made at any time.

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