Is hypocrisy sufficient grounds for outing someone?

It should go without saying that even public figures have a right to privacy. As long as their private life does not interfere with or corrupt the carrying out of their public duties, they should be allowed to keep it shielded from public scrutiny. Even if other people have information about them, releasing that private information publicly should be condemned.

This is a rule that is particularly apt for one of the most private areas of people’s lives, their sexuality. It is generally considered wrong to gratuitously out a person as being gay. And most of the time, people abide by that rule. The standard for allowing exceptions to this general rule seems to be hypocrisy. So for example, if it turns out that an elected official who supports actions to discriminate against members of the LGBT community is in fact gay, that is often considered to be justification for publicly outing him or her.

I used to agree with that hypocrisy standard but am now less sure. Why is hypocrisy singled out as the one transgression that merits outing? Is there something fundamentally worse about being a hypocrite than there is about other moral failings? And sometimes it may not even be hypocrisy. It is at least theoretically possible that a person who is gay may believe, for various reasons, that marriage should be between a man and a woman and thus vigorously oppose moves to legalize same-sex marriage. They may even think that homosexuality is wrong and a sin and feel guilty for engaging in it.

I am beginning to shift to the position that hypocrisy is not a sufficient standard for outing someone because it is beginning to look uncomfortably like we are punishing them because we think their private lives is different from what we infer it should be from their public statements.

The better standard might be that that particular aspect of their private life has to have a tangible negative effect on public policy. Otherwise, we end up using people’s secrets as a form of intimidation, threatening to reveal them unless they change their views to be consistent with their private lives. What right have others to demand that of someone?

I’d be curious to hear from readers what they think about this because I am still a little unsure of what a good standard for outing should be, assuming that one exists at all.


  1. Numenaster says

    My personal standard is this. Anyone proposing legislation, policy, or other activity that actively harms me and my family has earned my opposition. And anyone who disparages my character, morals, fitness for parenthood or value as a person based on my sexuality has earned my enmity. Anyone in public office who uses their position to do either of these will be resisted, and any hypocrisy they have laying around will be used. But it’s not the hypocrisy that I’m responding to: it’s the unprovoked attack.

  2. sundoga says

    I think hypocrisy IS reason enough. Being two-faced, failing to live up to the standard they demand of others -- this is pretty much the worst indictment I know of as regards a person’s character. While it is true that no one is perfect, I for one cannot believe that blatant hypocrisy is anything less than totally deliberate -- not simply a failure to measure up, but a knowing refusal to live up to the very points they demand.

  3. says

    Why is hypocrisy singled out as the one transgression that merits outing? Is there something fundamentally worse about being a hypocrite than there is about other moral failings?

    With public figures, the problem is not hypocrisy in itself; it’s that they are actually trying to use state power to cause harm to innocent people. That is what makes them — and their private lives — a valid target for retaliation or preventive action.

    That said, however, I believe that while outing a hypocrite who has proven himself a threat to innocent people’s liberty is morally acceptable, it may not be the most effective tactic, since it only exposes one person’s deviation from his own rules, and thus distracts attention from the wrongness and harmfulness of the rules themselves.

    In fact, it’s possible that outing hypocrites among the far right could do more harm than good, by causing them to be replaced by people who more consistently follow the backward bigoted rules that need to be discredited and overthrown. We need to be showing people how wrong and evil the far right’s rules are; but exposing their hypocrites only serves to REINFORCE those rules.

  4. doublereed says

    I think it’s more that the hypocrisy leads from their own regulation and activism. Like they’re actually trying to get their views imposed on others while not following it themselves. Hypocrisy is the thing being exposed, with the outing being “collateral” if you will.

    For instance, I think it is also acceptable to ‘out’ a Pro-Life Legislator who has had an abortion.

  5. says

    It should go without saying that even public figures have a right to privacy.

    I could argue the opposite. And it would go something like this:
    Political or administrative figures have public responsibility and that confers upon them the potential to do disproportionate damage to the public interest. As such, they ought to be subject to increased surveillance and perhaps should not enjoy the protections of a less empowered citizen. The same should be said for the wealthy, especially those wealthy who use their wealth politically; as we can see from the Koch bros, they have disproportionate power and enjoy wielding it. With that power should come responsibility and additional scrutiny.

    Hypocrisy is particularly significant in public figures because it indicates that they have an attitude of exceptionalism at a personal level; this should utterly disqualify them from public office.

  6. says

    It is not the hypocrisy itself, but the hypocrisy combined with both the power to change lives and the use of that power to change lives for the worse. I have no problem with a gay Congresscritter who wishes to remain closeted, as long as he is not supporting anti-gay legislation. I have no problem with a gay celebrity who wishes to remain closeted, as long as she is not the public face of an anti-gay organization or creating and presenting art that promotes hate. I don’t care if they don’t actively promote LGBT rights and related issues, as long as they are not actively opposing such. If they are pushing bigoted legislation, or performing bigoted song, or writing bigoted novels, or active in bigoted groups, then I think that outing them is the right thing to do.

  7. Numenaster says

    Oddly, I disagree with sundoga. I do not expect my elected representatives to all be of high moral character, because I don’t think enough people like that are elected to fill the slate of even my local county commission. What I do expect is for them to be effective at making things better for me and mine. And I will tolerate a hypocrite in office if I think they are doing more good than harm. So I do not think hypocrisy by itself is grounds for outing, but hypocrisy combined with active malice and the power to institutionalize it, is.

  8. says

    By “wealthy” in the above, I mean corporate leaders. As the leaders of Enron demonstrated rather conclusively, an asshole at the head of a major corporation can do disproportionate damage. Consequently they are a greater threat to society and their attempts to act privately should be viewed with suspicion.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    Whenever I encounter a moral issue like this that relates to politics, the first thing I try to do is try to frame it from both sides so I can try to cancel out my own substantial biases. So if the standard picture of this problem is a conservative politician who secretly is doing something liberal-ish (like having a homosexual affair) then I need to compare my feelings about that to how I’d feel in the opposite position, with a liberal politician doing something secretly conservative-ish, like

    -- a prominent animal-rights activist who is outed as a part-time hunter
    -- a politician who campaigns on womens’ issues, but turns out to have skipped on paying child support
    -- someone who campaigns on civil rights, but belongs to an all-white club

    I think my feelings in all these cases are consistent, which are: screw ’em.

    No-one is forcing these people to go into public service at gunpoint, and they’re the ones who can make or ruin this country for the rest of us. There’s just one, basic rule that should be fairly obvious for all of them: “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.”

    Sure, perhaps if everyone followed that rule, we might miss out on some great politicians like Bill Clinton, FDR, and JFK. But I think the country could have still survived.

  10. says

    For instance, I think it is also acceptable to ‘out’ a Pro-Life Legislator who has had an abortion.

    Sounds fair at first, but a) you run into issues of medical confidentiality; and b) there are LOTS of women who protest outside women’s-health centers, and then sometimes sneak in the back door for an abortion — what would they do if they saw such a violation of confidentiality?

  11. says

    Do you even agree with that view?

    I am not sure.
    To me the problem can be argued both ways, with what seem to me to be good arguments. So I infer it’s a matter of opinion.

  12. Holms says

    The test for me is not the simple fact that there is hypocrisy at all, but that there is hypocrisy in a matter on which they are campaigning for votes, and/or passing legislation. A politician may have an affair as an example, and while I consider affairs to be betrayals of the spouse, I would leave that alone as a family matter, and refrain from outing them if I somehow came to know they were dealing with it… though I might tip off the spouse if they did not know.

    Not the public however; not on that alone. However, if this politician is campaigning on a ‘family values’ platform, or passing a law against affairs or something along those lines, this causes it to no longer be a deception of the spouse alone, but a deception of the broader public. The politician’s career has been advanced by garnering votes while deceiving not just their spouse but also the voters, or has affected their lives through new legislation. At that point, the issue should no longer be kept private, as the dishonesty has touched the lives of more than just the cheated-on spouse.

  13. doublereed says

    @12 Raging Bee

    I wasn’t talking about the doctors. They have a serious demand for confidentiality. I just meant if reporters or other citizens out them.

  14. lanir says

    The crux of the matter is whether the person has attempted to harm other people in that area or not. If they have not begun actions in that area then they can say one thing and do another all they like and while I may not think highly of them, I wouldn’t bother exposing them. When someone is active in an area and damaging other people I feel it’s morally okay to respond to that. In fact it may be difficult NOT to out them.

    If you don’t out someone who is actively harming others for doing things they themselves do, you allow a sort of “holier than thou” setup to continue. This can be very dangerous.

    This is a bit more complex but I don’t think they need to be doing the exact same thing they’re harming other people over although it takes more thought. For example I might pause a bit before exposing an anti-abortion family values politician who was hiring prostitutes but it’s really that hypocritical veneer that’s allowing them to harm people. They chose to define the morals they use in their private life and bring them into the equation to support their stance of being able to cut off medical procedures. In this example I think I would end up exposing them. If they either avoided using the family values schtick or were only talking about the issue to pander to a group without taking significant action to harm others… no one would ever know, not from me.

  15. drken says

    The way it’s always been explained to me is that if somebody is actively trying to hurt a community, they can’t expect support/cover from it. So, if some closeted Congresscritter is going to start proposing legislation to ban gays from adopting (or whatever) and then goes to gay bars (or wherever) looking for somebody to pick-up, they can’t expect the people in that bar to keep quiet about it. It’s not like they aren’t morally fit to expect confidentiality, but that they’re going to fight the LGBT community, they can’t expect them to not fight back.

  16. says

    I think I’m mostly saying what everyone else is saying, it is the hypocrisy of trying to make laws that punish behavior that you are engaging in, or have engaged in. I have the same feeling for any politician who supports the “war on drugs” who has done lots of drugs themselves. They SHOULD be outed, because they’re are saying “do as I say, not as I do” and potentially have the force of law behind their statements.

  17. A. Noyd says

    [I wrote this up before reading everyone else’s replies, so take that for what it’s worth:]

    Because they’re trying to use privacy to protect themselves from the consequences of the very thing they’re working to enable. If they really believe in what they’re enabling, then why aren’t they out voluntarily? They shouldn’t get to use double standards to escape or profit from the harm to which they’re subjecting others. Outing them disables or hampers their opportunism.

  18. says

    Most comments involve the same issue, hypocrisy and legality, and I’m of the same mind. I can see good reason someone who

    {1} wants or tries to criminalize something the person does (e.g. George Rekers being caught with a male sex worker),

    {2} does something criminal that might not be publicized (e.g. a “tough on crime” politician who commits a traffic conviction, marijuana possession, DUI, etc. and tries to cover it up), or

    {3} openly speaks against or pretends to be “offended” by something they do in secret (e.g. anti-porn and anti-prostitution rightwingers paying for it in droves, Michelle Bachmann’s husband if he were ever seen in a gay bar, etc.).

    It’s not okay to out those who are no danger to others but live in fear (e.g. a person who might lose their job for their private activities, a gay person in a homophobic region, a non-participant in a near-theocratic state -- that doesn’t just mean atheists in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, it can mean christians in Egypt, muslims in Burma, etc.).

  19. says

    Another reason for outing hypocrisy, even for personal matters, is that laws should apply to everyone and not just to the general public. If a politician is legislating against actions that they themselves do in private, it’s not just hypocrisy, but an attitude that they’re above the law.

  20. flex says

    For myself, and in my role as a politician, I would say that yes, hypocrisy should be exposed.

    I don’t expect anyone, including myself, to avoid hypocrisy at all times. We are all hypocrites at times. However, there in addition to the good arguments made by other commenters above, there are two additional points I would like to make.

    First, from a personal perspective and less important, when someone shows me my own hypocrisy (which does happen), it gives me a chance to think and consider it. I don’t like it. It can certainly challenge my identity, and I will often defend my actions from the accusation initially. But I rarely stop thinking about it, and I will on occasion discuss it with the accuser some more, or even recognize that I’ve engaged in hypocritical behavior and find a way to correct it. Or simply acknowledge it. I acknowledge that I’m hypocritical about speed limits, I like to think of myself as being law-abiding, but at the same time I regularly exceed the posted speed limit. This is hypocritical behavior, I know and acknowledge it, and I’m not likely to change it.

    The second reason, and one which is more important to me as a politician, is one of trust. A politician who proposes laws which they are not willing to follow themselves is a politician who I cannot trust. They have, as suggested above, either decided that they are not subject to the legislation they propose and thus consider themselves different than the rest of the citizens they are supposed to represent; or they are pandering to special interests (social, or monied, or other) to maintain their position in office. It is one thing if a politician is accepting praise and money from groups which agree with the legislation they are proposing, it is entirely a different thing if the politician accepts the plaudits and lucre for legislation they know is bad, harmful, or will be over-turned in the courts.

    I don’t mind uneducated or single-issue politicians, they generally don’t last more than a couple elections. I greatly dislike politicians, of any party, who do not understand that they been trusted to consider the welfare of all their constituents and make the best decision they can, with the knowledge they have at the time. A politician who enacts laws which harms a segment of population may be doing so because they are ignorant or morally challenged. However, when a politician is proposing laws which harms people of a community of which they are expected to have some knowledge, exposing them as hypocrites is useful because it exposes them as unfitting recipients of public trust.

  21. aashiq says

    In my opinion, outing is never justified. It is an attack on an individual, by exposing a sensitive secret. Even if the person is “out” to a limited degree, he/she may not be publicly out.

    The closest parallel I can think of it to expose someone who is “passing” as Jewish, in an anti-Semitic environment. That was a real issue 40 years ago, just as being gay is still a real issue today.

  22. Holms says

    I can’t see how that situation is parallel in the slightest. Outing someone who was hiding the fact that they are jewish in order to expose them to racial discrimination is bad I agree, but not because you have revealed a secret of theirs. It’s bad because you ruined their chance at escaping the discrimination that they should not be subject to in the first place. Remove the bigotry from the environment, and it is no longer a problem if people know someone is jewish or not.

    The hypocritical politician on the other hand is not being exposed to bigotry regarding their race / gender / religion / etc., but is instead being held to account for their own actions.

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