The Oprah way

To change people's minds on issues like gay marriage, liberals need to learn to tug at their heartstrings.

Published January 24, 2005 6:42PM (EST)

In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond writes that "perhaps the crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change." He wrote this statement in discussing national security and environmental devastation, but it's also applicable to individuals. In the recent presidential election, progressives hoped to persuade Americans to change their minds about certain core beliefs -- including accepting the legitimacy of gay marriage -- but failed.

What makes someone reverse a long-held opinion about a touchy political issue? What's the thing that convinces an otherwise apolitical Midwestern churchgoer that gay rights are a good idea or that racial inequality needs to be immediately addressed?

Last spring, Salon published my article about concerns among the gay community that the marriage issue would be red meat for the right during the election. Clearly it was. And a good part of the problem -- the reason many Americans weren't convinced -- is that there was no strong sense among voters of an injustice perpetrated. Once the San Francisco courthouse became the center of the issue, the public face of the gay marriage debate was predominantly one of celebration, not of a right wronged.

On right-wing media outlets like Fox News, personal tales of victimization -- by "liberal elites," professional academics and Hollywood libertines -- abound. Witness the many network news segments that have profiled Christian teens "shut out" of their high schools, unable to conduct public prayer meetings. Consider also the inevitable framing of stories about the pagans who tried to cut Christmas out of the holidays. The right spins these stories, making big agenda issues absolutely personal, and garnering empathy for presumed victims. It does this even though -- as Jon Stewart pointed out on his talk show recently -- the right already controls all wings of government and is powerful in the most classic sense. The right uses these stories because they are effective.

One public figure understands the power of a sympathetic story. And while many lefties reading this are likely to roll their eyes at the mention of Oprah Winfrey, there's no question that she gets results -- she changes minds, skillfully encouraging her viewers to root for the underdog. In one recent example, a charismatic, eminently likable gay man had just experienced unfathomable loss. In relating his ongoing story, Winfrey made gay relationships understandable to the kinds of Middle Americans who voted against gay marriage initiatives.

The show was about Nate Berkus. (For blue-staters unfamiliar with Berkus, he's a telegenic designer with all-American good looks who appears regularly on Winfrey's home design segments. Her viewers love him -- and his window treatments.) Berkus had been vacationing in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck, and his partner, Fernando Bengoechea, has been missing since the event and is presumed dead.

Winfrey introduced Berkus, speaking directly to the camera. "For the millions of you at home who've come to know Nate as the sweet, talented cutie-pie with the great big heart," she said, "you should know that he and I have read your letters ... You will never know the depth of comfort those prayers and letters have brought to him and his partner Fernando, who is still missing. [They] are literally lifting Nate up."

As the show went on, Winfrey talked with Berkus about the couple's last minutes together and about how Berkus had managed to survive. She brought others onstage who had met him in the disaster's immediate aftermath, and interviewed his mother and his partner's brother and sister-in-law. Winfrey then urged viewers to give to her Angel Network on behalf of tsunami relief organizations.

Stories like this can convince red-state America that gay and lesbian relationships are equal to straight ones -- the central concept in the argument for gay marriage. Such stories do cause people, in Diamond's words, to replace their previously held values with new ones. Consider these sympathetic responses posted on Oprah's message board regarding Berkus:

Sharon C. of Carrollton, Texas, wrote, "Nate, may God be with you at this hard time. I pray that you will find your friend." Another post said, "You are in my thoughts daily and I pray for the return of Fernando."

DeJane Stephenson, from Kansas City, Mo., wrote, "I know there is no room for joyfulness now, and I pray deeply that God will give you his grace and return Fernando to you. I pray for you and all with you. I pray for your parents and family, and for the Bengoechea family as well. I am so very sorry for your suffering and waiting. God bless to you Nate. God bless to all the children who have lost all of those they love. May angels wait beside you."

Postings like these may be uncomfortable for some on the left to read because of the religiosity. (It's easy to dismiss the use of the euphemism "friend," for example.) But consider this: At last check, there were 4,568 similar messages of support for this man and his partner. Has any story in the media about gay marriage accomplished nearly as much?

With the Republicans in charge, it now becomes the work of the left to frame the social issues it wants to influence -- for example, homophobia, racism, war and xenophobia -- by telling stories that are easy to relate to and enable people (of all kinds) to root for the oppressed, the wounded and the underdog. This "Oprah approach" -- giving people an immediate connection to social issues by making them personal -- can change people's minds about deeply held beliefs.

These stories -- unlike those that the right crafts, such as the embellished tale of Iraq veteran Jessica Lynch, or the Swift Boat group's attack ads about John Kerry's Vietnam service -- don't need to be manipulated or created. They exist already. Progressives just need to be willing to tell them, and by doing so express which core values they think people need to hold on to and which ones they must discard and replace with new values.

While some advocates tried to sell gay marriage as an issue of victimization -- families denied access and legitimacy -- that idea never really took hold. Unlike the AIDS crisis, gay marriage posed no clear life-and-death injustice for Americans to come to understand.

In a recent New York Times article, Walter Kirn writes that even red-state Montana had a blue-state success story during the election: passing a medical marijuana bill. Kirn says that the marijuana legislation in Montana was a product of the leave-us-alone frontier mentality and a byproduct of an age in which the Marlboro Man now has cancer. It's easy to picture the Oprah factor at work here: The inevitable local news broadcasts about people suffering from illness whose lives would be made bearable by this drug. Stories like this can't help sparking a reasonable response in people. In this case, the response was the successful passage of a medical marijuana bill.

Isn't this the kind of success progressives crave? Not just a fleeting piece of legislation that might be reversed in a year or two, but the ability to change people's minds by tapping into true compassion for the repressed, the beaten-down and the marginalized. It's not just a matter of making a better argument; it's about telling a better story, often one of loss. But those stories can result in real, lasting rights as people -- witnessing blatant unfairness -- reevaluate their beliefs.

By Jennifer Buckendorff

Jennifer Buckendorffis a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington.

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Democratic Party Gay Marriage Lgbt Liberalism Oprah Winfrey