Friday, November 2, 2007

There is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

Over the last couple of days the online poly community has been buzzing about syndicated columnist Margo's response to a letter written by a poly woman. It's not at all positive, and as we usually hear when polyamory and its believers get mangled in mainstream media, some polyfolk have trotted out that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity. Others say it opens an opportunity for public discourse.

But this is NOT such an opportunity, because there is no way to respond that will be published. Margo's inaccurate and snarky statements just sit there in this instance for all to see with no opportunity for public debate. Sure, we can have an interesting discussion about it within the poly community, but we are preaching to the choir. And writing to Margo to enlighten her is all well and good, but she's not likely to amend her remarks. The best we can hope for is that she speaks more knowledgably and fairly if and when the subject comes up in her column again.

It's a mistake to rationalize away our discomfort by saying there is no such thing as bad publicity. There's a big difference that makes it not true for sexual minorities, who are already publicly skewered and the subject of strong bias and condemnation such as in this situation. Yes, it's good to have people who are open minded hear the term polyamory anytime. That part can be positive if they then seek out information and resources, but there is also considerable reinforcement for harsh judgments about polyamory at play. Respected public figures and pundits hold a lot of sway in terms of how they influence public opinion, i.e. if Oprah or Dr. Phil say it, then it's true. That saying applies more accurately in neutral circumstances where public opinion is not already very negative based on public taboo and the inherent nature of the behavior to which a substantial number of people already object.

In some circumstances there IS such a thing as bad publicity - like being a congressman and being outed as a regular seeker of sex in men's restrooms in airports, for example. I don't mean to come across as defeatist here - we aren't defeated. We push forward, and some will temporarily push us back, or try to, at which time we speak up and point out the inappropriateness of the push back. Ultimately we will find more tolerance and acceptance as time passes, but public advocacy for sexual minorities and the winning over of the hearts and minds of the public is not a linear process. The fewer times respected opinion makers speak against polyamory, the faster our progress will be and the less work will have to be done to achieve it.


Mus Q. R said...

Come on, the article was not that bad... the message wasn't that polyamory was bad, just that they should expect some people to not be completely understanding. Which is correct, as anyone who's tried to come out knows. The message I got from it was NOT that the poly relationship was wrong or bad in any way. It was one of tolerance if not complete acceptance.

Anita Wagner said...

This one particular letter wasn't as bad as others we've seen, true. I was speaking more broadly to the general tendency of some people to trott out the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity bit (however non-specific I was in that regard), and I saw it as useful to question the wisdom of assuming that it is universally true.

weatherman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
weatherman said...

I agree that there is such thing as bad publicity.

I think this example wasn't it.

I think the most important aspect of publicity for polys is the opportunity that middle-ground commentary in main-stream media offers - ie an influential open mind that may be convinced if we are smart about it. (ie responsibly, patiently informing in a non-reactive, mature way)

Anita Wagner said...

weatherman, I agree that one of the best ways to turn around negative comments about polyamory by those with influence over what others think about is to use them as teachable moments. Whether Margo is willing to be taught will remain to be seen, since as I noted, there is no opportunity to engage her in a discussion, but hopefully the letters she's received from polyfolk will have a positive effect.

My main criticisms remain that Margo did not give an accurate definition of polyamory, which indicates to me that she didn't do her homework, and I still don't like the snarky "well what did you expect?" tone of her remarks. No, that doesn't mean we should respond in kind - I don't believe I ever advocated anything close in terms of responses sent to Margo. I don't consider this blog post such a response and would be very surprised if she happens to read it.

Margo also fails to acknowledge that this poly woman's anxiety about the situation has any validity in terms of how her poly-ness is being treated by the people in her life. Maybe that's expecting too much, but it's still my opinion that public figures have a responsibility to educate themselves before responding or decline to post the letter and their response if they don't.