There has been a large and very successful campaign going on to get people on Facebook and other social media to use a big red and white equals sign as their picture. I saw it lots of places and thought that it was a great symbol of support for gay marriage as the US wrestles with the struggle between religious oppression and being a decent person. I thought not much more about it until I read articles here, here, and here slamming the practice and talking about how terrible this symbol was. I wouldn't have batted an eyelash if it was just some homophobe wailing about how the gays will rainbow us all but instead it was someone claiming that the organization behind the symbol wasn't progressive *enough*. The short form is this: The HRC whose symbol it is struggles for gay marriage rights but does not worry about other problems such as trans issues, racism, or other serious social problems.
Essentially the argument boils down to: Should an organization that promotes something good be derided for not working on things that are more important instead? I often think about this when I read about charities working to help people in Canada, particularly ones that aren't focusing on the poorest and most needy. For every person we help here we could spend an equal number of dollars and do fifty times as much good in a developing nation. People here have health care, relative security, and tremendous support from the social safety net that would be unimaginable in other parts of the world. Can we justify assisting people who are lower middle class in Canada considering the greater need in other places?
While in some theoretical world we should all maximize the good we do globally that isn't particularly reasonable. People have a strong sense of tribe for good or for ill and they want to have their efforts be noticed by those around them. They also see the difficulties of those close by or in similar circumstances and sympathize more readily. These things mean that people will always help others like themselves even if those others aren't particularly in need. Does that suck? Sure. Can we fix it? I doubt it. I think the best thing we can do is to accept that people will help who they can and encourage them to expand their list of people who they think of as 'like them'. The closer we get to people thinking of all others as belonging to their own tribe the better off we will be.
What this means for the symbol in question is straightforward I think. It is good that people are willing to make a public statement that they support gay marriage. It is good that people are trying to make that a reality. Those people should not, however, consider that this is the only goal or that they have done all they need to do when they change their Facebook photo. There are a world of good changes out there that need to happen. We should all prioritize our time to push forward those causes that seem like they will make the greatest positive impact for the least effort and accept that sometimes people doing good won't do exactly the good we want them to. We still need to support the good that they do and encourage discussion on exactly what the greatest good we can do is.