Imagine for a moment that David Brock, founder of the watchdog organization Media Matters, was African American or Asian or Jewish or Catholic or gay or disabled (I don't have a clue about his sexual orientation, ethnic background, religion or physical condition, by the way, but bear with me for a moment). So, if any of those things were part of Brock's identity, what might happen if a guest on a major news network said the following:
• That Brock is "dangerous" and then implied it's because he was black/Jewish/etc.
• "This is a (Catholic/gay/etc.) boy who needs to plumb the depths of his psyche."
• "Many (Asian/disabled/etc.) children are tremendously well-adjusted, but this man feels he's unloved and unlovable."
I'm pretty sure such comments would draw outrage from many viewers across the political spectrum. They would be the subject of considerable discussion all over the internet, on other news and talk shows, and in people's conversations from coast to coast. The network would probably apologize, and maybe even announce that the purveyor of such uninformed, biased remarks -- to describe them kindly -- would no longer be welcome as a guest on its programs.
Well, recently, a guest on a major network uttered every one of the disparaging comments listed above, and then some. But the part of Brock's real-life identity that was denigrated by psychiatrist Keith Ablow on Fox News was the fact that he entered his family through adoption and, alas, there was barely a peep of reaction from anyone outside of the adoption community.
Is that because adoptive identity is not understood as significant by most Americans? Probably, although the research and most adopted persons agree it's just as much a part of them as their race, religion, etc. Or maybe it's because Ablow drew on discredited stereotypes of adopted people that are still part of our culture, even though they're corrosive and offensive? That's probably a piece of the explanation, too; we continue to pay a high price for adoption's history of secrecy and shame, including far too little knowledge about the millions of people for whom it is an everyday reality.
The reasons Ablow felt comfortable linking Brock's behavior to his adoption, and the reasons his comments barely registered before flying off the radar screen, are important -- and it would be wonderful if they would be examined by researchers, fellow mental health professionals and television pundits alike. I'm not going to dwell on them here, however; instead, I want to make a few straightforward points, irrespective of the "whys" of what happened.
First, though it certainly happens, I hope we can agree in principle that it should be unacceptable for anyone to use negative stereotypes, unconfirmed assumptions or stigmatizing caricatures to cut down a political adversary, or anyone else for that matter. That such language is tolerated by professional newscasters and producers on a major, widely watched network is unnerving.
Second, people who don't know much about adoption, or about the individuals it impacts, should either educate themselves or find something else to talk about. At best, they are perpetuating undermining stigmas and stereotypes and, at worst, they are upsetting and infuriating adopted children (they watch television, too) and adopted adults, as well as all the other people who are personally affected.
Finally, as a former journalist, I am mystified and disappointed that any news outlet would give credibility to a psychiatrist who acknowledges that he did not examine the person he's publicly diagnosing. Ablow is entitled to his opinion regarding adoption issues, however uninformed or misguided it may be, but it is another matter altogether for a journalist or newscaster or whatever these TV personalities are called, to implicitly present him as an expert on the subject he is discussing.
I'll end with this admission: I could not have cited one substantive factoid about either Keith Ablow or David Brock before this episode was brought to my attention a few days ago in a bristling email from a middle-aged man, who was himself adopted. I knew very little about their politics, their work or their controversies. So my observations here have nothing to do with the ideology of the left and right, or political correctness, or whether Fox is fair and balanced, or anything of that sort. I simply learned of deeply offensive comments and was repelled by them -- as I hope I would have been if they'd been about someone's race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other part of their identity.
Pass the word far and wide, and let the national conversation begin.
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