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Imagining the Other Side: Obama Takes on Same-Sex Marriage

May 11, 2012

My time as a graduate student, and with it my eligibility to write for The Silver Tongue, is drawing to a close. As a result, I’m getting rather nostalgic. The first post I wrote for The Silver Tongue way back in October 2010 focused on how President Obama used people-based examples to argue for the Small Business Jobs Act. I appreciate the symmetry of writing my final post on how President Obama used people-based examples to support his declaration on May 10 that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Obama draws on several types of examples in his interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, demonstrating not only how personal the issue of same-sex marriage has become for him, but also how far-reaching it is. These examples are both necessary and effective because of what Elaine Scarry calls our “perceptual disability.” In her essay “The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons,” Scarry discusses how difficult it is for us to “imagine” others in a way that allows us to recognize that another person is in pain and, consequently, to avoid exacerbating that pain. This is certainly relevant for the same-sex marriage debate: the two main perspectives of pro- and anti- both focus on the denial of equality (though with different views on the importance or horridness of that denial), arguably a type of pain.

The main and most expected type of example that Obama used in the interview is that of individuals who are gay:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is gone, because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage.

What makes this type of example so effective is that it invites the audience to imagine (in Scarry’s sense; in the cliched sense, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes) that some of her or his own neighbors, colleagues, and so on are gay. Even if the audience does not know or have any acquaintances, friends, and/or family who are gay, the thought experiment itself is valuable.

Obama also gives examples of those who are affected by this legislation even though they themselves may not be gay—namely, his daughters, a relationship that is at once intensely personal for Obama and extremely accessible for his audience.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I—you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin’ around the dinner table. And we’ve been talkin’ and—about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would—it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently.

What’s interesting, though, is that Obama also acknowledges the naysayers to same-sex marriage. Not that he could get away with pretending that a silent majority in the United States supports same-sex marriage, of course. But in this way he asks those in his audience who agree with him to imagine those who don’t, not just the other way around.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think it’s important to recognize that folks who feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as between a man and a woman—many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And they have a different understanding, in terms of, you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I—a bunch of ‘em are friends of mine—you know, pastors and, you know, people who I deeply respect.

ROBIN ROBERTS: Especially in the Black community.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely.

There’s something to be said for an effective rhetor being able to imagine his audience. But I think there’s just as much to be said for being an effective, gracious human being who works to imagine “other persons” in general. Use rhetoric for good, not evil!

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