The Cost of Acceptance: Reflections

NBC Think asked me to write a short, 200-word reflection on my recent article on Ellen, George W. Bush, and the cost of acceptance.

Below is the full version, which was condensed for the newsletter.

Central to my analysis of Ellen Degeneres’ defense of her friendship with former US president George W. Bush is the concept of “likability.” In all of my writing, I am first and foremost interested in ethics. What are the ethical negotiations one makes in order to make oneself likable? To be accepted by society at large?

Usually, to gain acceptance, the cost is integrity in terms of one’s values. This not only compromises freedom for the self, but freedom for everyone. To be welcomed into the mainstream, one must dilute oneself as much as possible—this is applicable arguably to any minority identity. Personally, I always think of which feminists are the palatable ones; the cute, straight ones who ask “What about the men?” any time women are centered in a conversation.

The likable ones are whose voices are heard in the mainstream. But, in making themselves likable, who are they really representing? And, what are they actually standing for?

I am a lesbian. I remember watching Ellen come out on her tv show in 1997 and feeling my body shake inside. But the cost of her truth was erasure—her show was canceled, and she disappeared from the scene. And her takeaway was that to revive her career, she had to make herself likable. Ellen made herself into a global brand with her daytime talk show. For lesbians, the Ellen of the 1990s looks very different from the Ellen of the 2010s. The cost is evident to us.

The imperative to “Be kind” is code language for respectability politics when it is a demand placed on women and minorities, from queer people to black and brown people, Muslims to atheists. When you ask a person who because of their identity has experienced social and political oppression to “be kind,” you are not only asking them for complicity through silence, you are also dismissing their life. The power play is a projection of accountability: For the person who craves to remain blissfully ignorant of the life of the oppressed person to then request kindness is to place the responsibility for civility onto that oppressed person. Be kind = let me live in my bubble.

Ellen’s use of difference as a political bridge was particularly infuriating, because the difference of belief here is not a matter of whether Gala apples are better than Honeycrisp apples (they are) but of the value of human life. Here, America’s greatest public intellectual, James Baldwin, said it best: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Some lesbians who defend Ellen cite “acceptance” in their reasoning. But, again, the question is, Are you being accepted by society on your terms, or on theirs? Are people accepting you, or are they accepting the version of you that they want?