"They're Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!": On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!

For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.

The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.

For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”

Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)

Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kos says:

The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.

And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:

Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.

I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?

I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.

They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.

Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.

If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?

Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?

The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.

Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to? 

Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.


* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.

** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.

"They're Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!": On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

21 thoughts on “"They're Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!": On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

  1. 1

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I really enjoy your writing.

    It seems like you’ve phrased your argument the opposite way to what I would have assumed. Thinking of others as people who have Friends and Family is the answer, not the problem. Of course we care more about our loved ones. One of the most precious things about being human is being able to get close to people over time and care about them. You cannot feel like that immediately to a stranger, if you want to treat them with the same respect as those you love it has to be an intellectual decision. The easiest way to do that is to remind oneself that these strangers have people that love them too. It’s not about only caring about your Friends and Family, it’s about reminding yourself that a stranger has friends and family as well. It’s often touted in Retail, think of customers as someones Mum/Dad/Sister etc. because it helps you to treat people you don’t know with the same humanity you would want for your relatives.

    I think you go off track with the “Just like us” thing. It doesn’t matter how much of a minority someone is, they’re still human and therefore just like us. I don’t understand why you are arguing that this is a bad thing, it’s heartening to see two people with very little in common getting on. The world would be a much better place if everyone realised people are people and “just like us” regardless of trivial commonalities like getting married or not. Reminding yourself that most people have, have had or will have friends and family who love them seems as good as any for reminding yourself of that.

    1. 1.1

      Thanks, Ben. I’m wondering if you actually read the counterarguments to the appeal to kinship that I linked to and described myself, specifically this:

      Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

      I’d also encourage you to read the three pieces I linked to, because they make really good points. I and these other writers provided plenty of reasons we need to at least be cautious about the appeal to kinship and the “just like us” approach.

  2. Pen

    There is so much to think about here, it’s hard to know where to start. I think it’s worth looking a bit harder at this concept of kinship before coming to conclusions.

    On the one hand, it might be a powerful motivator, but it’s hardly a panacea. It’s very common for people to participate in systems that exploit or persecute some of their close kin at the expense of others. They can even do it while feeling great affection and believing they’re doing what’s best for them. This has very much been the case with gender and sexuality, also with race and class. People allow their social model of ‘how things should be’ to override their empathy for those who are close to them. They also use arguments like ‘I had to put up with it and I survived, so it must be ok’. I think I might argue that kinship only works as a motivator for social justice after justice has been recognised.

    Then there is the fact that kinship itself often goes unrecognised. Those of us who can pass as comfortably off middle-class white people are encouraged to function and make decisions as though our kin were in the same position. I’m afraid I think you contributed a bit to that tendency in your article. When you said:

    how likely are they (your friends and family) to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?


    the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

    I felt invited into a situation that rhetorically denies the actual reality of my immediate family, let alone extended family and friends. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it if I thought I was exceptional but I suspect my family situation is rather common and the consequences of its erasure quite harmful. I see my own family members talk as though they didn’t know a quarter of our immediate family was not white, that half of us are descended from refugees and the rest from people who got thrown off their land to work in sweatshops for a pittance, that a very large number of us alive today have been immigrants, that several others (the oldest generation) grew up in a war zone without enough to eat and some more escaped genocide solely by being elsewhere at the time. They do know these things – they’re just functioning with a socially imposed idea of who they are when they make social and political decisions and the real one when they’re being informally sociable. It’s an absolutely striking disconnect.

    I don’t know how to fit this problem into your discussion about kinship and social justice. I do know from observation that appeal to kinship works. When reminded that their own granddaughter is half descended from refugees, my parents stop saying nasty things about refugees. When reminded of the poverty they grew up in they stop saying nasty things about poor people. Re-grounding the issues in their own reality helps them override the negative messages we get about those people from wider society. The trouble is, you have to keep on doing it, because they are allowing society to constantly ‘serve’ them their sense of identity and their view of other people and letting it override their own reality.

  3. 3

    I think things would be a alot more useful if we broadened – like, really fucking broadened – the Just Like Us criteria from stuff like “they’re just like us because they want marriage and picket fences” to super duper inclusive things like “they’re just like us because they’re human beings with their own talents, fears and aspirations”. That way we can kickstart the empathy process whilst not being really problematic and throwing marginalised groups under the bus.

    1. 3.1

      This is the sort of thing I’d envision, too, but I think it’s not used because it might not work. I think there’s some sweet spot between the too-vague and the too-specific that gets people to care (for instance, it would also be weird if someone said, “Help this person! They have short reddish curly hair and enjoy eating cheez-its just like you do!”). What seems to work is showing people that a group that’s been “othered” actually has similar values to them–they, too, value Hard Work and want to get married and have children and collect as many degrees as possible!

      The problem is, these are not universal values. Many people, even straight white middle-class people, do not have them. They’re just what’s considered the norm, so if someone can be shown to share these values, they are accepted more, and that’s a problem.

      If there’s a way to hack the empathy process so that something like “they’re just like us because they’re human being with their own talents, fears, and aspirations” works, though, that would be awesome!

      1. “They’re your family/friends/neighbours” does exactly this: They‘re just like us because some of them actually are also one of us, you just never noticed their them-ness before…
        Family/friends/neighbours is a clear “us”-group for most people while still unspecific enough to find whatever the other group’s properties/members in them, too.

  4. 4

    I’m actually quite OK with such appeals as long as they don’t objectify the people that one is supposed to care about. Reason being, I think it’s a way of making people recognise that an issue is just important because it affects actual people instead of just being some irrelevant thought experiment where you can just let your moral philosophy ideas run free with no consequence to anyone.

    Non-social-justice example: Behaviour in traffic towards cyclists.
    Motorists, especially here in Australia but to a certain degree also in other places I’ve tried, tend to hate people wearing lycra and a helmet and riding on a road bike with a passion, and frequently endanger them while passing, cut them off on purpose etc. In contrast, people on a normal bike, in normal street or office clothes get a lot more sympathetic and courteous treatment, particularly if they’re recognisable as commuters or shoppers (i.e. by office bag or groceries). According to author of the “Lovely Bicycle” blog (worth a read), who used to do research about this kind of stuff, this might have to do with the visual mechanisms of emotionally recognising a person on a bike as human (as opposed to a cycling robot).

    I think there’s something similar going on with members of a group with a name: If you’re not a member yourself, chances are that the people in it are just abstract notions of random-OTHER-people who for empathy purposes just don’t count as people. Whereas if you get a specific example you’re likely to be able to put yourself in their place and care for how they feel. Making the specific example someone you want to feel happy is probably extra-helpful. (Notice the lack of mother-in-law, boss and used-car salesperson examples… 😉 )

  5. 6

    I have not considered this issue before, so any initial thoughts I have are subject to change (and I invite commentary into why they ought to change). That said, here is my initial reaction:

    I draw a clear moral distinction between appeals to kinship (“your friends/family are _____!”) and appeals to similarity (“______ are just like us!). Appeals to kinship imply and reinforce the idea that we care more about the people close to us. This is not a problematic concept to me. I care more about my friends and family (though, come, on, neighbors? How 1998 of you, Obama) than I do about complete strangers. And I should! Part of forming bonds with people is allowing those people to take on a heightened significance in your life.

    Appeals to similarity are different. An appeal to similarity implies and reinforces the idea that we care more about people the more closely their lives resemble ours. This is a much more problematic argument. The reality may be that people are naturally tribal and distrust “strange” people due to [insert bullshit evopsych explanation here], but even if that is the case, that’s something that it’s important that we, as a species, mitigate and suppress as best we can. There is no moral justification for caring less about someone because that person lives a life vastly different from our own, and we should not be tolerant of that attitude.

    On the argument that appeals to kinship exclude those who are not part of our social networks, that’s a really good point. However, I don’t think it necessarily follows that those arguments are harmful. That just seems to imply that it’s harmful to use exclusively appeals to kinship. Saying “this is important because it affects X” does not necessarily imply that things that don’t affect X are not important. The way to avoid sending that message (which our president did not seem to do in his speech) is to include other appeals as well. Include appeals to justice, appeals to the dignity of all people, appeals to morality, etc. Not everyone is going to care about the same thing, but if you can hit on something that someone cares about, I think you’ve done your job.

  6. 7

    Got no answers myself, but definitely looking forward to seeing if anyone else has any. I’ve noted this being problematic before, but I’m not sure whether I think it outweighs the value it can have.

    Certainly trans* people are rarely part of that “they’re just like us!” meme, anyway.

    1. 7.1

      Certainly trans* people are rarely part of that “they’re just like us!” meme, anyway.

      I would imagine that if any mainstream activist movement ever develops around trans* issues, it will try to use that tactic somehow. I can’t think of a movement that hasn’t.

      1. Well, depending on how you’re framing “a movement”, Radical Lesbian Separatism could qualify, along with the radical Gay Liberation movement, but of course, these weren’t mainstream, and they were radical, not Liberal. A defining characteristic of Liberal activism is that it attempts to maintain existing social structures and arrangements while simply changing the groups to whom they apply, instead of attempting to change or dismantle social structures entirely (marital privilege for same-sex couples instead of eliminating the privilege of legal marriage entirely and treating all households equally irrespective of their forms, for example).

        1. Sorry, I was basically using “mainstream” and “liberal” synonymously and since I’d already specified that I was talking about mainstream movements, I didn’t specify again. I probably shouldn’t have used those synonymously, although I can’t really think of a mainstream radical movement.

  7. 8

    I think it is used to humanize the subject. “X isn’t some kind of monster. They’re just like your friends or family.”

    For that reason, it can be used, but you do have to take problems you mentioned into consideration.

  8. 9

    This is, by the by, exactly the sort of way in which I envision skepticism being valuable to social justice. Seeing something that might be problematic, or might not, or might be both, and putting some rationality into gathering the premises for an argument about what large-scale technique might serve as an answer.

    Brava, Miri, really excellent post. I’m really enjoying the answers, too, very thoughtful from everyone, thanks.

  9. 10

    There’s another problem with the “friends and family” construction, which is that it takes as an assumption that “those people” aren’t the ones you’re talking to, that they’re not part of your audience. They’re…somebody else over there. You did mention it regarding the conference about people with mental illness, but it’s also very clear, and very wrong, here: “Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” ” Does he think those people aren’t in the audience, which in that case was the entire nation?

    Perhaps a modified version saying “those people are us” instead of “those people are just like us” or “those people are people we love” might take some of the negative connotations away.

  10. 11

    I think both of these tactics are attempts to circumvent something that happens a lot with social justice movements: the “language barrier” between those who have studied a subject on some level academically, and those who never have (and who perhaps never will).

    Let me try to explain what I mean. If I’m talking to someone who is ranting about [insert oppressed group here], I can recognize that they have dehumanized that group, treating them solely as a series of ideas filtered through their own heavily tinted paradigm. The most accurate way to confront that would be to go, “Hey, you are othering that group” or “Check your privilege” or “You have dehumanized them”.

    But the other person returns a blank stare. “But… they are someone other than me” or “I have struggles, too” or “Well, DUH, I know they are human.”

    Making the issue personal rattles that “Those folks out there” mentality. It forces a person to consider the humanity of the group they’re talking about–when they haven’t yet realized, and might never acknowledge, that they’ve dehumanized them in the first place.

    “Those folks out there” are flattened stereotypes with simple solutions. “My mother/sister/wife/daughter” is a fully-rounded individual that a person knows, loves, and can’t help but care about. “Those folks out there” just need to get their act together. But people “just like me” have legitimate struggles that aren’t so easy to sort out. Now, clearly, this is a deeply problematic way to think. But most people have no idea that they think this way.

    Ideally, yes, people should be mature enough to look outside of themselves and compassionately recognize the dignity and humanity of others. But that is very difficult to confront head-on with anyone who hasn’t already unpacked any of the concepts that go along with it. I think that in some ways, the appeal to kinship is nearly unavoidable, simply because it’s only once someone viscerally understands the problem of “othering” that they’ll be willing to learn the lingo and engage with it at a more responsible level.

  11. 12

    Ooh, nice, this is something against which I frequently rail, though I look to things like the problems of the grave amount of concern and attention for random strangers killed in a bombing in Boston compared to the total lack of concern for random strangers killed in a bombing in Afghanistan (carried out by nominal Al Qaeda operatives the same day) or Pakistan (carried out by the US itself, though none on the same day that I saw). I’ll be back later to expand and expound, if I remember following weekly after-work drinks.

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