Thursday, April 24, 2008

Free Advice, Politics and Self-Satisfaction

Recently I was exchanging war stories with another foster/adoptive parent over e-mail. As we vented our mutual spleen we found some common ground I didn't expect. It turns out both of us have very strong feelings about free advice, and I'm not talking about housekeeping tips from your mother-in-law. I usually take my mother-in-law's free advice. She's WAY smarter than me and could probably take me in a fight.

The parent I was corresponding with told me about a slogan I had not yet seen. "Adoption: The Nonviolent Choice" T-shirts and bumper stickers are all over, I guess, and a cursory Google search turns up blogs and web sites using the slogan to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion.

This seems like a good thing, on the surface. I've thought for a long time that the pro-life movement would have a lot more credibility if they got serious about adoption. During my painfully long tenure in a way too conservative church I came up with the idea of making T-shirts or bumper stickers that read "Real Pro-Lifers Adopt." That idea didn't get much support. As an adoptive parent I thought I, at least, had the moral authority to say that. My wife at the time thought it was way too judgmental of pro-lifers who, for whatever reason, had not chosen to adopt. It was also smug and self-satisfied of me to suggest it.

She was right. That was both the problem with my slogan, and the point. Don't tell others what to do if you aren't making any related sacrifices yourself.

The fact that so many Americans feel they can give this kind of macro-level free advice traces back to a very common American thinking error. Way too many of us believe that being right is a) all important and b) as easy as agreeing with the right people.

For example, to many conservatives the fact that Larry Craig may have had intimate contact with under age pages and probably solicited anonymous sex in public restrooms, then lied about it, is sad and unfortunate but nothing he should loose his career over. What is important to a fellow conservative is that Craig believed such behavior to be wrong. Whether or not he engaged in such behavior himself is an entirely different question. Craig was critical of Bill Clinton's moral failings and a member of the NRA. The thinking goes like this: a) Craig is a good conservative because he says he believes the right things. b) He had a problem and his own reasons for doing what he did, much like Ted Haggard.

The Right does not own this kind of hypocrisy. I left the Democratic party because of it's non-response to Bill Clinton's sweeping dishonesty. If Clinton had been a Republican President Dick Gephart and the rest of the Democratic leadership would have been at the door of the Oval Office holding pitchforks, and rightly so.

The slogans we put on our cars and chests align us with the right people. They don't persuade anybody or change anything. They make us feel better about being right. In the process we send self-satisfied messages to everybody else. Maybe that's OK. It's not like Americans all hating each over politics and social issues is new. Besides that I don't know if thoughtful, considerate or respectful political messages work as bumper stickers.

But this is the big rub, and what brings us back to my e-mail conversation. If the slogan has to do with personal decisions like adoption or abortion, the self-satisfaction comes wrapped in a thick layer of free advice.

The problems with the "Nonviolent Choice" slogan start with the audience it targets. In stead of focusing on social forces creating a demand for abortion it does what the pro-life movement has always done. It targets women in crisis and claims to know what is best for them. This slogan also has the benefit of painting the opposition as violent. More than anything else, it makes pro-lifers feel good about themselves and at no personal cost. They don't have to actually do or sacrifice anything beyond pulling a 80/20 poly-cotton T over their squeaky-clean head. I imagine this is the real goal of all such slogans.

The other thing my correspondent pointed out was that whoever came up with the slogan may not know much about actual adoptive families. Sometimes adoption is violent! Not the legal proceeding itself, of course, but some of us have had to learn some holds and breaks for our own protection, not to mention what happens to our possessions and pets. I know this is not standard for all adoptive families, but it does make me wonder what the communication committee had in their heads when they brewed the slogan. My guess would be a healthy, white 19 year old passing her healthy, white newborn over to the adoring healthy, white bank manager and his healthy, white stay-at-home wife in a sunny hospital room.

And they all have perfect teeth.

I was going to tie in some free advice stories from when I first adopted, but I'll save those.


karen said...

This is a very good point. It's why I stay away from bumper stickers and snippet t-shirts for the most part. (although some certainly make me smile) It just seems far better to walk the walk. Wearing an idea on your shirt or posting it on your car is fine, I suppose, but it doesn't go far. For instance, I smile when I see things like "love makes a family" and I frown when I see the "marriage = {insert 2 stick figures; 1 with pants, 1 with a dress}" Beyond that it means nothing to me... Well, I do tend to think about the resources wasted to produce the bumper sticker - especially when it has some environmental slogan on it.

DJ Dual Core said...

Thank you.

So far as walking the walk goes, you couldn't be more right. A few years ago, without really noticing, I quit caring whether or not other people thought I was a good Christian. This freed me up to just BE a Christian. It was so liberating! This was around the same time I quit being chronically angry. I'm pretty sure there is a connection.

I've come to see the fish decals and the silhouettes of Calvin bowing before the cross as self defeating, or as you say, not going very far. They don't spread the gospel. They just help Evangelicals identify each other, as if that's a big deal.

I guess the COEXIST stickers and environmental slogans are similar, but there is something particularly disturbing about cheapening faith that way.

Hahn at Home said...

I think you should run for office. You make way too much sense though, you'd never get elected.

DJ Dual Core said...

People less inclined to agree with me would probably argue with that, but I'll take the compliment.

If my refusal to pander didn't put an early end to my political career there's the huge tattoo on my left arm and an ex-wife who would be all too happy to talk to journalists. If that wasn't enough there's me being an anarchist, which isn't as scary as it sounds, but if I were running for office what it sounded like would be all that mattered.

Ya, I'm pretty much unelectable.

PeWee said...

I was waiting for you to include Elliot Spitzer in there someplace.

A birth mom once told me "Adoption is NOT the anti abortion option."

And as far as the family with perfect teeth... IMO, people who truly want to parent should pursue children who don't have parents, not stand in line waiting for the precious baby to be born and hope to be the chosen ones.

Aren't we instructed to care for the orphans, widows, strangers.

I'd vote for you, so it wouldn't be a complete landslide!

redhogdiary said...

We could all stand to do a better job of "walking the walk." And somehow I am reminded of John Lennon's "Imagine" about now. Especially considering the current Presidential campaign and the candidate of my choice continually having to defend himself for not adorning his lapel with a flag pin. What is a lapel pin if not a symbol that one is among the "right kind" of patriots? There is something particularly disturbing about cheapening what our flag represents in making it an issue if one wears one or not.
We have a long way to go to get to a point where we live by the "golden rule." Your post was refreshing and a good reminder for all of us. Thanks for sharing.