Second-place Activism

by Ian Tingen

My first post on this blog was about the sea of red-tinted Human Rights Campaign logos that popped up on Facebook last week. Today, I return to the topic, mostly because the discussion about them won’t let up in lots of places on the internet. Of course, as we all know, when the internet’s fighting, we have to pay attention.

I will admit a bit of ignorance on the issue that many have brought up: the HRC’s dismissal of issues relating to trans* people and of people of color. Doing a little digging, it’s easy to see that there is palpable and understandable acrimony, but I found myself wondering: Why are these people so angry about progress?

In short, I think we might be witnessing a political analogue to the silver-medal effect. Most often, you’ll see the effect (which is my term for it) in discussions about the Olympics. Here’s how it works: Imagine a typical gold-silver-bronze winner’s platform, the kind you’d see at the Olympics. Now: who’s happiest of the top three? That’s right, the gold medalist. Now who’s least happiest? Intuitively, many of us would say bronze, but it turns out that’s not so: silver, or second place, is the most miserable. The quick and dirty explanation for this is that the second-place finishers are thinking about what could have been (First place!) instead of what is (I’m second best in the world!), and that third place finishers are just happy to be there.

Back to the matter at hand. Let me be clear: civil rights are not a contest to be won. Even so, I think the silver medalists can help us understand what’s going on here. Often, those engaged in activism are necessarily parts of coalitions – minority causes require groups of diverse actors to band together to press for progress. Right now, there is a coalition pressing for marriage equality, and it rode high on a red tide of social media. Even without word from SCOTUS, recent events are a media exposure win for marriage equality – one unmatched in action by anything else in recent memory.

With so much attention on the changing face of marriage, I would think that people fighting for those rights are thinking about what might have been and what could be for their own groups. Seeing others finally get the ‘win’ while they themselves are relegated to second-class citizens has to hurt.

Even so, progress requires inertia, and those who seek to mute the visibility of the HRC might only be slowing their own march to equality. Even if it’s not a perfect momentum, it is in the right direction.

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