I don’t cry very often. When the news you follow and the work you do is centered on injustice, there’s not much room for breakdowns; there’s always a new and more distressing story on the horizon. And besides, there’s work to be done.
So it took me by surprise that when a close relative approvingly shared this video on Facebook, I started to sob. It wasn’t about the video’s content—a “gotcha” compilation about contraception taken at an Obama rally where Sandra Fluke spoke. It was the heartbreaking realization that washes over you when you remember that the opposition to your deeply held values is not just a faceless, evil enemy—it’s family.
People like the ones who created this smirking video believe that women who want birth control covered by insurance are stupid. Maybe even whores. Conservatives have framed basic preventive healthcare as something seedy and contemptuous. (Perhaps because at the heart of it they find female sexuality seedy and contemptuous, but that’s a post for another day.) We should “keep our legs closed,” put “an aspirin between our knees” or if we want to “be paid to have sex” we should “post the videos online so [people can] watch.” This video isn’t just a “joke,” it’s a clear-as-day statement about how ludicrous the right finds women.
It’s easy to deal with this kind of hateful sentiment when it comes from a world away—people you wouldn’t want to know anyway, assholes in your inbox and talking heads on Fox News. But when the people you love the most have politics that believe you are at best naïve and at worst maybe even evil… well, there’s no ignoring that.
The truth is, I have it fairly easy on the family and politics front. My parents are old hippies who are beyond thrilled that I’m a feminist. Most of my extended relatives are supportive.
I look at letter like this one—from a father disowning his gay son—and I cannot imagine the soul-crushing agony that occurs when your dad tells you he will never speak to you again and, “if you choose not to attend my funeral, my friends and family will understand.” It’s unfathomable.
In part, I think this simple shared Facebook item was a jolt back to reality. There’s something about the Internet that makes it easier to take hate in stride—or at least, convince ourselves that we’re doing so. The fast pace helps; if you’re not stopping too long on any one thing, it’s easier to forget what people are actually saying. So much of current political discourse has become about sarcasm and quick hits—a pithy swipe that’s easily tweet-able, a one-sentence link to a cruel meme—that brushing off our shoulders is now standard.
But living in this ocean of shrugs and “likes” means that when we do stop for a moment to consider the enormity of something like a loved one’s expressing unfettered contempt for you and everything you believe, it can be stop-in-the-middle-of-the-room-and-cry heartbreaking.
It makes me wonder if the cousins who babysat me as a toddler—who tucked me in and brushed my hair—think that I’m someone who supports killing babies. Could they actually look at me and believe that? Because that’s what they’re saying when they vote “pro-life” or share something about abortion from a hateful conservative website.
It might also be that the hurt we feel when family doesn’t get it—or gets it and hates us, anyway—is a hint at the broader pain we experience from living in a country that feels the same way as our cousin, or our father. For me it was as if the tremendous disdain for feminists and women—a hate that I usually manage to set aside—was all of a sudden next to me, and I couldn’t move it.
Sometimes, it’s best to ignore hate—whether it’s coming from your mom or your Representative. There’s no changing some people’s minds and talking to a brick wall can be a waste of precious activist energy. But sometimes—when we take a chance and believe the best about people—taking the time to reach out to someone can make a difference.
Another letter went viral recently, in which a gay son wrote to his father asked his father to vote for President Obama after seeing him “like” Mitt Romney on Facebook. The son wrote:
I’m almost forty. Both of my younger brothers are married, enjoying all the rights and responsibilities of that government-issued status. Do you want that for me? Do you believe I should have someone beside me on life’s journey, legally recognized as my spouse, able to visit me in the hospital, able to make my end-of-life decisions, with whom I’m able to build a financially interdependent life? I have to believe you do. I have to believe you’re too good a man not to. Because if you don’t… If, like the candidate you’re supporting, you believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman, I feel sorry for us both: you, because it means you’re on the wrong side of history and your own son’s happiness and me, because it means my father does believe I’m “less than.”
In any other election, given any other choice, I’d stay quiet…. But this isn’t any other election. This election presents a clear choice between two people whose policy beliefs directly affect the course of my life. Let me be clear: A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote against me.
His father replied, “I will honor your request because you are my son and I love you.” Maybe blood can be thicker than politics.