The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Conservatives, AIDS & the “Compassion Gap”

This is probably one of those things we’re not supposed to talk about, particularly on World AIDS Day. But it’s been sitting in my inbox for a couple of days, and today seems like as good a day as any to address something that’s been an undercurrent in previous posts. So, there’s this new study from a Christian organization — Compassion International — which suggests that conservatives are somewhat less compassionate to people living with HIV/AIDS.

In the study commissioned by Compassion International, a ministry to poor children in developing countries, 1,004 telephone interviews with adults 18 and older were conducted by a Christian polling organization.

When asked if they “have more sympathy for people who have cancer than you do for people who have HIV or AIDS because you feel most of those with HIV/AIDS got the disease as a result of their decisions or lifestyles,” thirty-nine percent of the people polled agreed strongly or somewhat.

The study shows that political ideology plays a large role in the degree of sympathy Americans hold for victims.

“Demonstrating that these issues have been co-opted by political considerations, easily the most significant gap related to sociopolitical ideology,” the study says. “Political conservatives (50%) were twice as likely as liberals (23%) to say that they have less compassion for those with the ‘lifestyle’ disease.”

“Also, Republicans’ lack of sympathy outpaces that of Democrats (45% versus 34%, respectively),” the study adds.

Hey, I didn’t say it. I just quoted the study. Question is: Why the “compassion gap”?

I’ve encountered the “compassion gap” myself. The first time was during my sophomore year of college. I was dealing with a couple of things at the time. One was my then-undiagnosed ADD, and the reality that I was “hitting the wall” in terms of being able to compensate. (I crashed and burned during that first semester, and from then on had to take a partial load of classes, and thus took six years to finish my undergrad degree.) The other was the impending death of a close friend of mine due to AIDS-related complications.

I was home for the holidays, and trying to explain to my folks what happened to me academically, related to what was going on in my life. And I mentioned dealing with my friend’s death. I was stunned by the response I got in reply from my Dad: “Well, in that lifestyle, you’re always going to have people overdosing, committing suicide, or dropping dead from disease.”

This was from a man who was pretty compassionate in general, to anyone else with almost any other illness. And it wasn’t a lack of empathy either. This was also a man who couldn’t sit through the last scene in The Champ and stay dry-eyed.

I think what lies beneath the surface of the compassion gap regarding people living with HIV/AIDS is a sentiment that’s still a bit to bold to say out loud, but is probably believed by more people than would ever admit to it: They got what they deserved.

We saw it early on in the epidemic, when the “innocent victim” categorization entered the discussion, and people living with HIV/AIDS were put either in the “innocent victim” category or the (presumably) “guilty victim” category. We saw it again when Kimberly Bergalis rose to fame as the “innocent victim” poster child for the epidemic, and conservatives like William Dannemeyer pointed to her as someone who did nothing to “deserve” her illness.

Well you can’t have someone who doesn’t “deserve” her illness without also having people who do “deserve” the same illness. And you can’t have “innocent victims” of an epidemic without also having “deserving victims,” if the latter can be called “victims” at all, since it follows that might be victimizers and responsible for infecting some of the “innocent victims.”

Given all of those distinctions, whose situation is more tragic? And for whom do you reserve compassion? The gay man with HIV? The heterosexual woman infected by her boyfriend? The married man infected by a blood transfusion? The baby for HIV positive, to a drug addicted mother? The HIV positive drug addicted mother? The heterosexual drug addicted man who infected her?

And how do you prevent the spread of the disease? You can preach abstinence to those who will listen, even though it’s rather ineffective at preventing sexual activity or the spread of STDs. (And in Dubya’s America, you can even get the the government to pay you to proselytize and bend the rules to make it easier for you to do so.) But do those who don’t practice abstinence also “deserve what they get”? Particularly if prevention is not the point?

At Reclaiming America for Christ, Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate—a question she regarded as risible. “What he’s asking,” she said, “is does it work. You know what? Doesn’t matter. Cause guess what. My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public schools’ job should not be to keep teens from having sex.” Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth!”

“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!”

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what “works” isn’t what’s important—and gave some insight into what she means by “truth.” “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

After all, if “the wages of sin is death,” then those who were infected with HIV due through sexual activity (even heterosexual contact, one would presume) or drug use are simply reaping the rewards of their “lifestyle” choices. How much compassion do they deserve?(Unless they “repent,” that is. After all, the same social conservatives who believe social services should be turned over to religious organization believe those services should be conditional upon repentance.

And when it comes to prevention? Well, it’s one-size-fits-all, and if it doesn’t fit, then those who can’t or won’t conform themselves to it can go forth and sin, but not without “consequence.” Because punishment for sin is more important than prevention for sinners.

And to some people, that’s compassion.

The rest of us ask, “Where’s the compassion in that?”

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