Wednesday, 22 December 2010

On the Ethics of Outing

Apparently there's been some recent rumbles about outing Lindsey Graham.   Graham  has been an opponent of things like repealing DADT,  gay adoption, gay marriage and has supported constitutional amendments to prevent gay marriage.  I don't know whether or not it's true that Graham is gay, but I think the question of outing someone like Graham raises an interesting moral issue.

There's a pretty strong utilitarian case that can be made for the outing. As a legislator Graham was taking steps to severely restrict the rights of gay people.   Some would argue that if an action is within the law and helps to stop such injustices, the justification is obvious.   Would we have paused in revealing that a legislator had, say, had a child out of wedlock if that act was all that stood in the way of successful passage of civil rights legislation?  Nonetheless, there's something unseemly about blackmail even if the blackmailing is done to bring about positive ends.   So, I think that we stand on much firmer moral ground if we can show that the information is information that the voters deserved to know all along or at the very least, is information the person shouldn't have assumed would be protected by ordinary privacy considerations.

So to what extent is privacy deserved or reasonably expected in this matter? Arguably, sexual orientation is relevant to voters if that legislator is going to be making decisions about gay rights related legislation.  That's not to say only gay people people are qualified to legislate on gay rights but it help voters determine something of the background of the legislator that may help them to make assessments. We wouldn't contend that the fact that someone was a teacher is irrelevant if we anticipated their being called on to vote on education legislation.  We presumably wouldn't think a person's ethnicity irrelevant and out of bounds if we anticipated their voting on immigration legislation.  Why should a person's sexual orientation be out of bounds if they're going to be voting on gay rights legislation?  Politicians often proudly parade their families when they're campaigning because they clearly believe that that component of their private life is relevant to voters and they're okay with it.  Candidates typically reveal a great deal about themselves and a great deal is also revealed about them, what makes one's sexuality so special that it should be off the table?  I'm not suggesting candidates should release lists of lovers, but it's not obvious that one's sexual orientation so obviously should be off the table when so much about a candidate isn't.

Over and above the question of whether a person's sexual orientation is something voters have a reasonable expectation to inquire into, there's another question about what this sort of situation reveals about Graham's character, i.e., does it reveal a duplicitous or hypocritical nature? Presumably such moral failings, if present, are relevant to voters because they speak to character and trustworthiness. To many, a gay legislator's failure to support gay rights legislation is obvious hypocrisy, I'm willing to be a bit more charitable.  There isn't a logical contradiction, I suppose, in embracing homosexuality and opposing gays in the military or gay marriage. It would be an odd position to take but I suppose it is possible; one might make the arguments that conservatives often try to make, i.e., it's all about semantics and troop cohesion.  I don't find those defensible positions, but I'll acknowledge that  if one sincerely holds them it's possible to take those positions, be gay and not be a hypocrite. It's more problematic, though, to my mind, to try to argue that preventing homosexuals from adopting is permissible.  It's hard to understand such a ban as emanating from anything other than a view that being a homosexual is wrong and that to expose a child to gay people is to jeopardize their wellbeing.  So, insofar as a homosexual person opposes adoption by homosexuals, I believe that s/he reveals himself as a hypocrite.  And, I'd argue that blatant hypocrisy is something that voters deserve to know about.

There's also an extent to which we all believe that public figures insofar as they voluntarily took up public life have given up some of their rights to privacy.   People get incensed about outing gay people, but they don't seem to get nearly as incensed about the media releasing all kinds of other information about people's private lives.   There's a gossip section in the Washington Post that discusses where politicians and actors eat dinner in DC, what they ordered, whom they went to dinner with and even how much they tipped or what it cost.  Those certainly are facts about people's personal lives that are truly irrelevant to what they're doing as legislators but we don't hear people complaining that such privacy violations are unacceptable.  We eat it up when Eliot Spitzer gets caught with a prostitute or John Edwards gets caught in a hotel late at night.  So why are people so much more inclined to find gay outing unacceptable? I wonder if  this inclination to believe that homosexuality warrants special privacy considerations also suggests an inclination to view it as more shameful than some of these other acts. I can't imagine people becoming upset with someone "outing" someone as being straight.  It would be unlikely that such revelations would be met with angry rebukes that whether or not the person is inclined to sleep with members of the opposite sex is his/her business alone.  Perhaps the portrayal of this kind of outing as a terribly vindictive or cruel act serves to perpetuate the view that being gay is very shameful and closet worthy.

Just to be clear here, I'm not arguing that the sexual orientation of everyone is everyone else's business.  I'm arguing that it may be everyone's business if the person in question has deliberately chosen to be a public figure who will be casting votes on the matter.  I should also clarify that when I speak of outing in the above, I refer to the act of revealing someone's sexual orientation.  I think that all people, even public figures, have a right to privacy when it comes to particular details about their sex life. Of course, that right to privacy isn't absolute, and the privacy about such matters might be reconsidered if they reveal the person to be lying in some other area of his/her life.

No comments: