WASHINGTON - What would it take to get you to stand up for me?
Let's say I'm routinely discriminated against and in some cases outright despised.
Let's say I'm often used as a scapegoat and there's an ongoing debate over what rights I do and do not deserve.
Under what circumstances would you be willing to break with the pack and speak a word on my behalf?
Would it be enough that you simply saw a wrong being done? Or would you need to have some emotional investment in me before you spoke up?
Would we, for instance, have to be kin?
The question is occasioned by something Vice President Dick Cheney told an audience in Davenport, Iowa, last week. Namely, that as far as he is concerned, the issue of gay marriage should be left to the individual states.
"With respect to the question of relationships," Mr. Cheney said, "my general view is that freedom means freedom for everyone. People ... ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to."
The vice president's view, which he also stated during the 2000 campaign, puts him sharply at odds with his fellow conservatives, chief among them his boss. President Bush has thrown his support to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Mr. Cheney, the good soldier, refrained from criticizing Mr. Bush for that.
"The president," he says, "makes policy for the administration."
Still, it's an awkward position Mr. Cheney finds himself in, championing a view that is anathema in his political circles. If the folks in Iowa wondered about his reason for doing so, well ... she was sitting in the audience. Her name is Mary, she is the daughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney, and she is a lesbian.
As Mr. Cheney put it, "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with."
In other words, he sees the matter differently than he otherwise might, because he has a personal stake.
I've seen that dynamic at work before.
Indeed, if you want to hear someone really blow a gasket about department store detectives following black teens around, don't talk to a black teen. Talk to the white parent of a black teen. Bring earplugs.
In such circumstances, injustice ceases to be an abstract concept faced by abstract people, but a real threat faced by someone who is known and loved.
Makes all the difference in the world, I guess.
If it sounds like I'm beating up on Mr. Cheney for supporting his daughter, that's not my purpose.
I only mean to observe that the gay rights issue is a lot bigger than Mary Cheney.
More to the point, that injustice is injustice whether it affects someone you know or someone you'll never meet.
Unfortunately for Mr. Cheney, conservatism has no place for him on this issue, does not strive to be thoughtful or even noticeably principled where gay rights are concerned. To the contrary, being persuadable is seen as weakness and being persuaded as proof of moral failure. In Mr. Cheney's world, people do not seek to put themselves inside other lives or to see the world as it appears through other eyes - particularly the lives and eyes of society's others, those people who, because of some innate difference, have been marginalized and left out.
Then someone you love turns up gay, turns up among those others.
One imagines that it changes everything, forces a moment of truth that mere reasoning never could. And maybe you find yourself doing what Dick Cheney does, championing a cause people like you just don't champion. Doing the right thing for imperfect reasons.
"Freedom means freedom for everyone," said Mr. Cheney.
Which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. But if every conservative home is going to have to have a lesbian daughter before we can accept it, then freedom will be waiting a very long time.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.