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Opinion | Simon Waxman

Where’s the political imagination?

Among the newest members of the slim majority of Americans who favor marriage equality is Rob Portman, the Ohio senator.

But while those of us who support civil rights for all Americans should applaud the senator, the rationale behind his change of heart should also give us pause. Portman didn’t come out in favor of marriage equality until his son came out as gay. It was this, Portman explains, that made him see the issue differently.

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Psychologically, this makes perfect sense. Pollsters and sociologists have long recognized that just knowing someone who is gay makes one less likely to be homophobic and more likely to support equal rights for gays and lesbians.

But morally, Portman’s explanation makes less sense. It should be obvious even in the absence of direct experience with marginalized communities that everyone’s civil rights must be protected. One shouldn’t need to have a gay son in order to know that gay people deserve equal treatment under the law.

What Portman shows us is how underappreciated imagination is in politics. Portman, like those who continue to hold the views he once professed, apparently lacks the ability to imagine what it would be like to be marginalized or to care about someone who is. So he could not see the injustice of the status quo until a person he already cared about became one of its victims.

If only more of us paid attention to John Rawls, the late Harvard philosopher whose ingenious thought experiments point one way to a more just society via powerful acts of imagination.

Pretend, he said in “A Theory of Justice,’’ that you found yourself in society on the first day of its existence. Now consider how you would structure that society from behind what he called a “veil of ignorance”: an impenetrable barrier preventing you from observing your own condition. You would have no knowledge of your social background, abilities, gender, religious and moral convictions, sexual orientation, and anything else that comprises your identity.

One shouldn’t need to have a gay son in order to know that gay people generally deserve equal treatment.

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Most of us, blessed by such power and hamstrung by such ignorance, would try to build a maximally fair society. If you don’t know where you stand among your peers, it’s in your interest to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to flourish. So you will set up rules that allow everyone a fair shot at success no matter where they start in life and grant them the freedom to behave as they choose, as long as they don’t infringe on the freedom of others. To the extent that the rules are discriminatory, it will be to guarantee that we all have real access to the freedom and equality of opportunity we are promised.

Another way to think about this is that a good society is most likely to emerge from the minds of people who can put themselves in other peoples’ shoes. If you can imagine what it would be like to possess a trait that is used as a marker of deficiency or undesirability — such as homosexuality or physical deformity — then you will probably oppose so marking that trait.

John Howard Griffin turned the experiment into reality and fired the collective imagination. A white journalist, he convincingly darkened his skin and then set out to explore the deep South as a black man. He shared the story in his 1961 bestseller “Black Like Me.”

The account of his experiences with segregation, struggling to find work, and fielding insults and degrading questions from white people opened a lot of eyes. Griffin helped white people imagine what it would be like to be black by showing them that the only quality separating them from their African American counterparts was color, that being black did not signal anything about one’s behavior or the character of one’s mind. He made imagination accessible.

Portman may lack the insight of a Griffin or Rawls, but he still deserves credit. For many of us, even first-person experience is not enough to undermine our prejudices. Portman may prove a model to parents who continue to shun their gay children. He may also prove a model to other members of Congress who back civil rights, but who, for now, lack the courage to say so.

And at the same time, Portman should serve as a warning of what happens when we leave imagination to only novelists and poets and playwrights. Politics is also an appropriate realm for a bit of make-believe.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.
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