Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Ethics of Outing

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue

The very strange etiquette regarding closeted public figures is finally facing some due criticism. Itay Hod recently made news by not-so-subtlely implying that Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL) is gay. And before that, Josh Barro openly criticized privileged gay celebrities in the closet, basically calling them cowards (he called them “decadent,” but he was underselling his point).

The traditional line from many in the gay activist community has been a complete moratorium on outing. When Chris Sosa defended the outing of Schock in The Huffington Post this week, he claimed that gay activists' reluctance towards outing derives from the historical potential for violence against those who are outed. This has certainly been a worry, but it's not the whole story; otherwise, gay activists would have been hesitant to advocate anyone coming out at all.

What we hear most often from the anti-outing crowd is that “coming out is a deeply personal, private decision that everyone must make for him or herself.” This sounds pretty reasonable, especially as a rule of thumb for dealing with those in one's own social circle. But it's highly doubtful that this reasoning applies to our treatment of those who choose to be public figures.

We constantly talk about the personal lives of celebrities and politicians. Far too much, in my opinion, but this is not the argument we hear against outing in particular. For some reason, people claim that facts about an individual's sexual orientation must be treated differently than almost any other fact about them. Why should we be more worried about the moral implications about outing public figures than we are about announcing a high-profile divorce?

Barro argued on Twitter that the anti-outing argument must rely on an assumption that there is something shameful about being gay. Perhaps this assumption lingers on, but more broadly these arguments reflect the skepticism about the validity of this kind of moral criticism. One of Barro's objectors argued that we cannot judge anyone who chooses not to come out because they have their own personal reasons that we will never understand. However, this might be true of any individual doing anything at all (like, say, committing a hate-crime), and this hardly hinders our ability to make reasonable evaluations of their character.

However, I am not really that interested in whether or not Schock is gay or a hypocrite. I'm much more concerned with the policies he endorses and seeks to promote.

He might be a hypocrite, which is a criticism people love to throw at their political opponents. And if others want to point out hypocrisy where ever they find it, they should feel free to do so. I imagine they hope to bring down their opponents in whatever way they can, and that is just how the game is played.

But I think we would be better off spending more time discussing the reasons for and against certain policies than discussing the hypocrisy of politicians. I would rather vote for a hypocrite who will promote policies that I support than vote someone with integrity who would fight those policies. And I'd rather support a hypocritical candidate with the right views who can win an election than a saint who does not stand a chance.

Evidence of hypocrisy might serve as an indicator that a politician is unreliable. I do not dispute this, but there might be plenty of reasons to think of a politician as unreliable. The charge of hypocrisy, then, is only derivatively important. Being unreliable would be the true criticism, and would probably need to be supported by additional evidence.

Of course, I do not think people should be hypocrites, and as a moral criticism it is certainly powerful. This is why I join Barro in regarding those privileged closeted celebrities as cowardly. They fail to contribute to the increasing the amount of positive gay visibility in the world, which has the potential to bring hope to those still struggling with sexual identity. They reap the benefits of the work that courageous LGBT individuals have done before them, but decline to pass on any similar benefits to those who will come after. And since the risk of even losing an entire career (which is, at this point, unlikely) is much less serious than the risk of living as a dejected LGBT teen, these celebrities deserve our disapproval.

As do, naturally, closeted politicians. But the metric most relevant to our judgments of politicians is how good they are at governing and representing the public interest. This should be our primary focus when evaluating our elected representatives.

Nevertheless, discussing our politician's sexual orientation is not somehow off-limits or below the belt. Closeted public figures really should expect it, especially when they make decisions that reflect value-judgments about homosexuality. A divorced politician bemoaning the disintegration of marriages would certainly be called out for their hypocrisy, and gay politicians deserve no special protection.

No comments:

Post a Comment