Friday, April 10, 2009

enforcers., or, vigilante outting!

several weeks ago, i was privileged enough to be eating dinner with some really wonderful philosophers- my fellow philosophy students, my professors lionel mcpherson and erin kelly, and two guests, tommie shelby and derrick darby. it was maybe the least socially awkward philosophical dinner party that i've ever been lucky enough to be a part of. the conversation, which i've recounted a number of times since (if i've recounted it to you, bear with me-- or, conversely, don't bother), turned, to my delight, to the moral status of vigilante outing! the gist is this:

(1) within the gay community there is an general belief that a closeted person could rightfully object to being outed by another person in the community.

(2) then there is the more radical view that a closeted person has no right to object to being outed, though it may cause them some harm. it might, in other words, be ethically permissible (or even obligatory) to out them on a number of grounds. first (this is the seemingly easier case), the person in question may be doing some direct harm to the community from their closet-- a closeted conservative politician, or evangelical religious leader, say. but the more interesting argument applies to people that we all know, closeted at work, or at home, in most cases to avoid harms and efforts ranging from the tedious to the down-right dangerous. the idea is that by being closeted, they harm the community by failing to bear their part of the burden in the larger struggle to secure benefits that they themselves enjoy, or could enjoy. it's the old free rider problem.

i have lots of thoughts about this! but i'm not going to talk about them here, directly. my view, in short, is that no one is ever, even in the extreme case, morally obligated to out someone, and that outing anyone under any circumstances is probably the wrong thing to do. but my reasons for holding this view are not, i think, conservative. i fully recognize the very real problem that the radical proponent of (2) is openly confronting:

in any community, and particularly within some solidarity group engaged in a struggle for survival, it is essential that the group find some way to protect themselves, both from external threats, and from the internal threat of free riders. the survival of the community itself depends on defending certain borders (literal, ideological, or otherwise), and on each member within those borders doing his or her part to abide by community standards. and yet, each individual within the group must grapple constantly with the temptation to minimize or avoid altogether the burdens of citizenship. if a group is large and its members have a reasonable measure of privacy, there will always be opportunities for this kind of exploitation. so keep it all together-- to maintain the good thing you've got going-- you've got to find a way to police against free riders, and ensure solidarity.

but even if all communities require policing, it might still be the case that the individual acts that policing consists in are not the sorts of things that, in and of themselves, anyone ought to do. going back, for example, to the case of the vigilante outer: it might be the case that if we had this sort of community policing, we'd all be more honest, or that we'd all be forced to join the fight and stay in it or something like that-- if no one had the option of being closeted, it seems reasonable to assume that we'd have more people fighting harder for gay rights-- fighting for their lives, bearing some of the cost of some collective struggle. but it still strikes me as obviously true that the sorts of people inclined to do this sort of outing are going to be morally insensitive dicks. and if they're not-- if they're just good people who decide that it's a job that must be done, despite it's distastefulness, by someone, for the sake of the group-- then they're going pay a high price, selling their souls, so to speak, in the supposed interest of the rest of us. this is not something that i would either do myself, or council anyone else to.

the problem, i think, is this: it's one thing to ask someone to do what's right, despite the cost to oneself-- it's another to ask someone to do something that's wrong as the means to some better end. i don't want to be a free rider-- it doesn't even sound fun or satisfying to me. which is why i try (with occasional success) to do what's right despite the cost to myself, and why i would encourage anyone who asked me to do the same (for their own sake, as well as everyone else's). but i don't think that i can endorse (or even fully make sense of) the notion that it's right to do something that's wrong in the interest of survival. and in this case, it's the survival of a group whose own principles may very well conflict with the actions that must be taken in order for the group to survive.

people sometimes assume or imply that an act that preserves a person or community that is itself good, is a good or at least acceptable act. i don't see why this should be true. it strikes me as obvious that being a good person is going to come into conflict with self- (or group-) preservation. but it's not at all obvious what, when that conflict arises, one ought to do about it.

1 an exception: i don't think that anyone is ever obligated to closet themselves for someone else-- it's unreasonable for someone closeted to expect another person to keep their actual behavior a secret. while it's lame, i think, to out someone for the sake of outing them, it's better when we can live our lives openly, and it's unreasonable for someone who fails to live openly to ask someone they've slept with to fail along with them. though outing someone for the sake of outing them and outing someone just in the course of living one's own life honestly might have the same impact on the person who is closeted, it seems to me that each act has a different moral status.


jenny said...

i've been hanging on to this until i had a chance to comment. i don't think it's anyone's damn business, ya know? i don't go around talking about how i'm straight and don't expect my gay friends to talk about how they are gay. it's just not important to me to point that kind of thing out.

Drew said...

1. I think you've pointed to a pretty fucking big paradox and possible inconsistency in the very coherence of the concept of a morally progressive political solidarity group. Think about it. For their survival, these groups need to have certain morally distasteful actions performed--but if the members of this group are moral people, or at least moral enough, they won't engage in this kind of behavior. (Sidenote: I'd like to think that even if it was to save the entire world, I wouldn't torture or rape someone. That's my 'reverse' threshold.)

So, it looks like morally and politically legitimate and progressive solidarity groups are doomed to fail, or at least struggle at the expense of the folks who do accept lives as enforcers.

2. I was just thinking that what also seems wrong about an obligation to out an important or powerful public figure is that it's a kind of applied ad hominem attack, even if it does produce good consequences. Because you're not really attacking the anti-gay values that the person espouses; you're attacking the person for being disengenuous, hypocritical, or even a failure to live up to her own standard.