Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not off the hook with me...

Ryan Sager

Being Barack means never having to say you’re sorry

Yesterday, I wrote about apologies, and why we do or don’t accept them. The context there was the Sarah Palin / David Letterman clusterf–k, which seems to be over now (save for Dave’s getting a week’s worth of bits out of it).

But, this morning, it’s got me thinking about apologies in the public sphere in general. And why our behavior with regard to public figures that disappoint us is so robotically predictable.

Take President Obama’s announcement that he’ll direct the federal government to start providing same-sex partner benefits to the federal workforce. While not an apology, per se, it’s essentially a conciliatory gesture for a series of actions he’s taken to — not to put too fine a point on it — screw the gay community:

* First, he stood on the sidelines as the African American community in California pushed Proposition 8 over the top, stripping gay couples and families in that state of their civil rights.

* Second, he abandoned his pledge to reverse don’t-ask-don’t-tell in the military.

* Third, he filed an extremely damaging brief in federal court supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, invoking tropes about incest marriage and arguing that DOMA is good for the federal budget (it keeps all those pesky gay partners from collecting Social Security).

Now, he wants the gay community and supporters of gay rights in general to take this as an apology and as sufficient recompense for the previous (and ongoing) screwing of gays in other areas. And, you know what, they (we) will pretty much take it. Just like with Bill Clinton, who did even more to screw gay people (and interns, yes, got that out of my system).

Sure, there will be some angry blog posts written. Sure, some of Obama’s gay supporters will try to work up some anger. But, at the end of the day, for most of them, their hearts won’t be in it.


Well, it goes back to what I wrote yesterday about why we accept apologies from some people and don’t accept them from others. If we generally like someone — and the vast majority of gay people like Obama and voted for him — we’re far more likely to accept an apology from them. And, we’re more likely to believe that their intent was good, and thus we’re even more likely to forgive them.

[By the same token, if you didn't like President Bush, you were certainly never going to forgive him for supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment (even though Bush only fake-supported it to appease his base and then made sure it never moved forward in Congress — arguably making him better on gay rights than Clinton).]

Another factor at work is the “false consensus bias.” It’s a shame the things Obama has had to do out of political necessity, you tell yourself, but I know deep down he cares about gay rights and is just “playing a long game” — he’ll do what he can when he can. Deep down, he’s on the same page as me. Of course, this is bull. Experiments have shown that we’re all terrible intuitive psychologists and extremely prone to projecting our views onto others (that is, in the absence of evidence, we assume people think what we do).

Obama, in fact, has really been the master of false consensus bias. Does he support charter schools? Well, I support charter schools, and he’s given me enough material to pretend he agrees with me. At the same time, a teachers union official somewhere out there believes he really plans to strangle charter schools in their crib. Does he support affirmative action? Gun rights? Gun control? Socialism? Market capitalism? On dozens of issues, millions of Americans have attributed their own views to President Obama. Now that’s how you get elected.

Add in a dash of cognitive dissonance — I voted for Obama, I support gay rights, Obama must support gay rights — and you’ve got the perfect storm.

Will Obama be able to placate the gay community? Being Barack means never having to say you’re sorry.

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