Liz at Yellow is the Color opens an interesting discussion of emotion and politics with this vaguely What’s the Matter With Kansas-flavored anecdote:
My professor told us this story (which I am now going to promptly butcher) about his time on the campaign trail. In 2004, he was going door-to-door campaigning deep in the backwoods of rural Mississippi (or Arkansas, or Louisiana, I forget which, but you get the gist). They were in a particularly poor neighborhood one day, where most of the residents lived in trailers. He approached an especially run-down trailer, with overgrown grass and trash on the front lawn, and knocked on the door. A woman answered, wearing a moo-moo (miu-miu?). “I’ve never honestly seen anyone in a moo-moo before this,” he said. The woman was holding a toddler on her hip; there was a teen girl behind her, holding a baby on her hip; and a few assorted children crouched behind her. Everyone looked ragged, malnourished. He started talking to the lady, and came to the question, “What is the single most important issue to you in the upcoming election?” Obviously, there were a lot of issues that probably concerned this lady’s life — the economy, obviously. Maybe better access to healthcare. Maybe the war in Iraq, since those fighting and dying disporoportiately come from poor families like hers. Maybe better public schools.
She furled up her brow and sneered a bit, my professor said, and answered him with absolute conviction: gay marriage.
My professor was flabbergasted. Gay marriage? “I can guarantee you that there were no gay people even out, let alone getting married, within 200 miles of her,” he said. But there she was, standing here in this trailer home with all these babies on her hips, ready to cast her vote for whatever candidate could assure her that, on his watch, no gays anywhere were going to be threatening her by walking down the aisle.
As I’m scarcely the first to note, I think there’s something amiss with these narratives insofar as they’re supposed to show how people are hoodwinked into “irrationally” or “emotionally” focusing on culture war issues, and so voting against their “real” interests. And one way to highlight that is to flip it around. Barring some midlife epiphany, I will never want a gay marriage for myself—is it somehow false consciousness if I nevertheless think this is an important issue on general grounds of civil equality? If I’m pretty confident that neither I nor most of my friends are in proximate danger of getting shipped off to Iraq, is the war’s ballooning cost the only rational grounds for my opposition to it? Are affluent liberals who think poverty is the most important issue similarly deluded, unless they’re just trying to reduce their chances of getting mugged?
I think the mistake is easier to make in the case outlined above if you’re disposed to regard the substance of the view in question—that gay marriage is some sort of threat to Western civilization—as stupid or irrational. But how salient an issue is and what position one takes on it are distinct matters. Whether you’re for or against gay marriage, you can regard it as relatively important or insignificant. Someone’s beliefs about the meaning or likely effects of gay marriage may be emotionally skewed or irrational, but the weight they then give the issue may be perfectly rational given those beliefs.