Years ago, I was still living in France, in a Southern city with a very far-right mayor (he had defected from the National Front mostly because it was not big enough to fit his massive ego). He was all one would expect from a fascist, except on one topic: HIV-AIDS. On that topic, he was pretty compassionate and almost progressive. His wife would sit on the board of multiple NGO related to that cause. Why the discrepancy? Because their son had the disease. Now, all of a sudden, it affected them so, they could not buy their own rhetoric and policies on this.

Still years ago, at my workplace, I am listening to a talk (I don’t remember the topic or the speaker), but it had to do with gender equality. During the Q&A, one person stated that whatever problem was under discussion would have been solved if the ERA had passed and that the conservative governor was against it then. The speaker said that since then, the governor had become the grandfather of several now-young women and that he was much more sensitive to gender equality issues, because gender inequalities might affect them.

More recently, I watched the documentary Food Inc. and one of the people featured then is Barbara Kowalcyk who lost her son to E.coli after eating a burger. She describes herself as a conservative who did not care about food issue and thought this was all liberal / hippie stuff. But then, she directly suffers a personal loss as a result of lack of food safety, and all of a sudden, she becomes a food safety advocate.

And a few days ago, this piece in the New York Times:

“It turns out that judges with daughters are more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights than ones with only sons. The effect, a new study found, is most pronounced among male judges appointed by Republican presidents, like Chief Justice Rehnquist.


The standard scholarly debate about how judges decide cases tends to revolve around two factors: law and ideology. “Here, we’ve found evidence that there is a third factor that matters: personal experiences,” Professor Sen said. “Things like having daughters can actually fundamentally change how people view the world, and this, in turn, affects how they decide cases.”

The new study considered some 2,500 votes by 224 federal appeals court judges. “Having at least one daughter,” it concluded, “corresponds to a 7 percent increase in the proportion of cases in which a judge will vote in a feminist direction.”

Additional daughters do not seem to matter. But the effect of having a daughter is even larger when you limit the comparison to judges with only one child.

“Having one daughter as opposed to one son,” the study found, “is linked to an even higher 16 percent increase in the proportion of gender-related cases decided in a feminist direction.”

The authors also looked at the same judges’ votes in a separate set of 3,000 randomly chosen cases. There was no relationship between having daughters and liberal votes generally. Daughters made a difference in only “civil cases having a gendered dimension.””

The above are only anecdotal but it seems that conservatives can only reach a compassionate position on something if it affects them personally. No amount of data or evidence or stories from other people matter. It is not entirely surprising since conservatism is based on a rather pessimistic view of “human nature” (such as it is) and a proclivity for punitive social policy based on the idea that bad things only happen to stupid / bad people who make bad decisions usually based on a lack of personal restraints.

But, once personally affected, then they see an issue as having affected one of the “good guys”, then, the issue becomes understandable as one of policy rather than individual failings. Think back in the early days of HIV / AIDS when conservatives really didn’t give a damn until “the good guys” (not gays, not drug users) started getting infected.

This particular form of sociopathy is also what is at work in TV shows like Undercover Boss. Does one really need to experience exploitative working conditions to understand exploitation? Reading about them on paper really does not convey that understanding? It takes a massive amount of privilege and just not giving a damn to only start to care about issues when one is directly affected.

It is also a massive failure of thinking if one cannot think past one’s own experience. It is also a major failure in understanding complex issues. Issues can only be understood as personally experienced or they don’t exist (kinda like being born again). This is something that, maybe, should be considered alongside the anti-intellectualism of that particular political ideology, an avatar of it.