On Tuesday, Jimmy Kimmel once again used his son’s heart condition as a lever for talking about health care. This time, he talked about the Children’s Health Insurance Program, created by Republicans and now pressed forward by Republicans; last time, he used his son’s heart condition to talk about the evils of altering Obamacare.
This angers me.
It angers me not just because I think it’s exploitative — though I do. I think it’s exploitative because my own daughter had open heart surgery to fix an atrial septal defect at the same hospital with the same doctor as Kimmel’s son, but I don’t put her face on camera in order to make political hay. The only time she’s ever appeared on television, her mom was working and I had charge of the baby. Like an idiot, I thought she’d sleep through the hit. She woke up moments before, and I plopped her on my lap and proceeded to do the interview while she pooped.
I’d never think of using my daughter’s health (thank God, she’s totally fine now) to stump for a particular health policy. She’s a kid, and it’s my job to keep her safe from politics and the public.
But the invocation of personal experience in political debate is generally obtuse because it is a soft form of identity politics. It puts those arguing in the position of supposedly rejecting your personal experience, thus impugning your integrity or the veracity of your feelings. The same logic that undergirds Kimmel’s appeal — my kid has suffered, so listen to me on this unrelated topic — undergirds the identity politics of the left and right (“I’ve lived this, so my perspective matters more”). It’s safe to say that Avik Roy knows scads more about health policy than either Jimmy or I do, and that would be true whether or not he has kids or kids who have had a heart condition. The whole point of determining policy is that empathy shouldn’t outweigh reason.
Beyond that, the emotional appeal of experience often isn’t an appeal to empathy at all. It’s an appeal to separation: it’s “you don’t understand-ism.” The point isn’t to create connection with the audience — it’s to suggest that those who disagree with you are incapable of forming a connection. They must disagree because they have no feelings.
This poisons politics. I’m sure that Kimmel is a nice guy, and that he and I could have a good discussion about children — or, for that matter, about health care. But we can’t have that conversation if we’re busily comparing whose child has suffered more, and who therefore has the additional emotional credibility necessary to push a cause over the finish line.