Outing on Capitol Hill

Nothing triggers dreadfully unethical behavior more reliably than organized personal righteousness and the conviction that a group is crusading for a virtuous cause. Despite the nightmarish examples of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, Mao’s purges and scores of less violent outrages, otherwise decent and intelligent people continue to argue that their social, moral or political agenda justifies hurting people as a just means to a glorious end.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is the campaign to “out” gay Congressional staffers who work for House members opposing gay marriage. It is being led by gay activists Mike Rogers and John Aravosis, who have spread genuine fear around Capitol Hill. Outing, the public revelation of the sexual preference of gay men and women who prefer to keep that aspect of their lives private, fails most tests of ethical behavior. It certainly violates the Golden Rule and principles of reciprocity: those doing the outing are intentionally putting others through pain and embarrassment that at another time in their lives they would have felt just as sharply. It fails in absolutist terms as well, by using the lives of other human beings to accomplish an objective. If there is an ethical argument for the current wave of outing in Washington, it must be a utilitarian one: the harm being done will be over-balanced by the benefits that will flow from it to society in general. And the tactic fails this test as well. It fails that test spectacularly, because there is no real nexus between the action and the result it pretends to bring about. As the Washington Blade (D.C.’s pre-eminent…and most ethical, as its rival publication supports the outing campaign…gay and lesbian newspaper) wrote in a recent editorial:

But if these activists were truly committed to ensuring equal rights, they would be organizing gay people to educate the public and members of Congress about public policy issues affecting our lives.

BUT WHY ORGANIZE when you can terrorize?

Anyone who would threaten to out gay and lesbian staffers — potentially costing them their careers and their economic security — is not only cruel, they are doing nothing to further the fight for equality. This will do nothing to stop the Federal Marriage Amendment from coming up for a vote in mid-July.

In fact, the FMA will most likely fall far short of the necessary 67 votes for passage. So, we’re left wondering: What exactly are these activists hoping to accomplish?

They certainly aren’t changing anyone’s value systems. They certainly aren’t using logic and reason and the values of inclusion and fairness to sway members of Congress. Rather, the only likely outcome of this campaign would be to potentially cost some people their jobs and to give our opponents ammunition by showing the country how we treat our own.

The tactic is punitive and vindictive, rather than persuasive or productive. Its aim is to punish those who do not share the outers’ political and social priorities, irrespective of their actual impact on policy. It is, as the Blade correctly noted, terrorism: attempting to win an argument by intimidation. But it is also embodies an ethically offensive philosophy that anyone who does not support a particular point of view deserves to be hurt. The supposed “crime” is hypocrisy, but the outers are hypocrites as well. They are cynically using a social phenomenon that they claim to deplore, societal bias against gays, as a weapon against other gays. In our view, that hypocrisy dwarfs the supposed hypocrisy the outers are condemning.

The notion that one’s political views and social attitudes must be dictated by one’s race, gender or sexual orientation is anti-democratic and indefensible in ethical terms. An African American does not have to favor affirmative action. A woman does not have to support abortion rights. And a gay man or lesbian does not have to support gay marriage. They are individuals, free agents, and Americans, and can do and think as they wish. That is exactly what the civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights movements stood for. Nor do gays on the Hill have any obligation to make support of gay marriage their only or primary priority even if they do support it. Can any rational gay American really hold the opinion that the status of gay marriage is the most burning issue facing the nation? Indeed, this is one of the most persuasive arguments against the proposed Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage: Rick Santorum to the contrary, this is not an issue upon which the future of the Republic depends. The Advocate, D.C.’s less ethically attuned gay and lesbian paper, wrote:

These gay conservatives say they aren’t ‘single-issue voters’; they like the rest of Bush’s program. Isn’t that a little like those defenders of Mussolini who said he made the trains run on time?”

Uhh… no, guys, it is nothing like that. In fact, it is the opposite (when are they going to start teaching logic in the public schools again?). Mussolini was a ruthless and murderous dictator whose policies destroyed Italy. Those who focused on his success with the train schedules are justly ridiculed because they used the mundane to excuse the momentous. In the context of national issues like national security, health care, and the economy, gay marriage is a lot closer to train punctuality. It’s a worthy cause, but to the vast majority of Americans, there are more pressing matters to worry about. They don’t deserve to be punished for their opinion, and neither do the gays who agree with them.

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