Can outing an LGBT+ person ever be morally justified? The case of Aaron Schock
In 2014, journalist Itay Hod outed Aaron Schock on Facebook (2014). Schock, a United States Representative for the state of Illinois, was described by Hod as being commonly known to be LGBT to the media (a journalist apparently caught him with a 'roommate' in the shower) but no one dared to take the wildly controversial and radical step of outing him. The "darling of the GOP" supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage and Hod's wrath takes aim at the absolute rejection of outing in mainstream discourse, suggesting that the media is "obligated" to expose his "hypocrisy" (Hod, 2014). I didn't imagine my review would be inspired by a Facebook post, but Hod's post reignites discussions on what for many would be a journalistic nuclear button.
For many in the LGBT community and beyond, outing is a cardinal sin. A deontological abhorrence that is unacceptable in all circumstances, completely unjustifiable, and beyond shameful to do. An invasion of privacy with added caveats of endangering the wellbeing of the outed with often permanently damaging consequences. Broadly, this is uncontroversial but I propose to argue in favour of a consequentialist understanding of outing, and why sometimes to not out someone is wrong in a 'the ends justify the means' approach. As an LGBT+ person, I hold that as a community we must protect ourselves and if that means outing someone who is actively acting agains our interests, then it can be justified. I will argue that outing Schock was a justifiable act of retribution, and that outing active opponents of LGBT equality is a reclamation of power away from an oppressor, by doing this in a framework of Kantian ethics we will see that even the most deontological of thinkers can be a consequentialist.
I do not dispute that to out someone is in most cases morally reprehensible. Sexuality can be difficult to come to terms with, many LGBT people live double lives and to out them could mean isolating them from their friends and family forever. It could mean they'd lose their living, their financial stability and the roof over their heads. It could also mean bullying, the kind of bullying that contributes to LGB young people considering suicide five times more often on average that heterosexual young people (The Trevor Project). The consequences of outing, then, are significant. Whilst plenty of LGBT people have supportive environments in which their identity is respected, many still do not. So the question then is how can we justify risking someone's livelihood, their wellbeing, their health, and their personal relationships? I argue from the Kantian position that when one performs an action against another, they consent to said action being performed upon them. I will interpret this a radical way, namely that those actively engaging in legislation that undermines the fundamental rights of LGBT people forfeit having certain rights and social conventions respected toward them.
Before we consider the arguments, let's put the outing of Aaron Schock into context. Voting against the repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', against LGBT protections from discrimination in the workplace, and against including protections for LGBT people in hate crime law (Sosa, 2014). The Human Rights Campaign gave him a score of zero for his voting record in the 111th Congress (Human Rights Council). Sosa, perfectly reasonably I might add, argues Schock wasn't merely "disaligned" but in fact an "active opponent" of the rights and equality of LGBT people (Sosa, 2014).
So where is the line? Could we out someone secretly LGBT just for voting against equal marriage rights even if they've voted to support the LGBT community in all other matters? Does someone have to have power to be justifiably outed? Sometimes we might decide a radical solution is better than a softly softly approach. Closeted LGBT people who freely and actively expend their efforts to undermine multiple arenas of legal and social equality of LGBT people are not entitled to not be outed.
We now consider Kantian interpretations of the Golden Rule. Hirst writes Kant held his morality was in step with the age old maxim 'love thy neighbour as thyself' (1934, p. 328). For Kant then, one can't complain to receive the same treatment to which one might subject others, for instance if I were to punch my housemate he would be entitled to punch me back. For Kant, evil can be justly repaid with proportional evil. Now some will say Aaron Schock never outed anyone, so how can we say he deserved to be outed himself? Having already established outing as being in contradiction to what many see as an innate right to privacy, we must argue that Schock by his actions must have consented to innate rights like privacy being compromised. This is relatively simple. Firstly, it is no mischaracterisation of Schock's voting record to describe it as sustained and systematic campaign to undermine attempts to enshrine LGBT equality in law. As a Congressman, Schock had considerably more power over LGBT rights than the overwhelming majority of LGBT people. Rather than abstain, he chose to actively support efforts to undermine LGBT equality. The inequalities Schock voted for included homophobic attacks to not be defined as hate crimes, for LGBT discrimination in the workplace to be protected in law, and for soldiers to lose their jobs if they disclosed their sexuality (Human Rights Campaign). These inequalities manifest as a loss of dignity. A legislative environment wherein such inequalities exist are a systematic and constant attack on the dignity of LGBT people, they are painted as lesser and as undeserving of equality. A person's innate rights of course include privacy, but they also include dignity. Schock actively violated the innate right of dignity held by LGBT people and as a result he consented to his own innate rights being compromised as set out in Kantian morality.
Now of course, some may argue that Kantian morality is beset with a particular problem of reciprocity insofar as it permits the repayment of evil with evil (Hirst, 1934, p. 333). Kantian justice then is retributive, and as such echoes Hegelian ideals of justice being the restoration of a disturbed balance of equality in a lex talionis format (Reiman, 1985, p. 122). In other words, 'two wrongs don't make a right'. If I punch my housemate, that of course is wrong, but him punching me back is still wrong. This deontological conception of morality I argue is grotesquely naive, and ignores any possibility that contextual factors have an effect on the moral validity of an action. If we assume killing to be deontologically bad, then we must accept that to kill in self-defence is evil. If someone is about to shoot me, but I have the chance to shoot them first, would it be evil for me to do so? I'm sure few would think so. I can therefore say by extension, that LGBT people should not have to respect the rights of those who do not respect their rights. Outing Schock wasn't done on a whim, rather it involved an effort to transition power away from Schock by undermining his credibility by exposing his hypocrisy.
Outing, like anything, shouldn't be considered in absolutist terms. The outing of Aaron Schock is an example of making the referent object of LGBT rights discourse something other than a veiled legitimisation of treating LGBT people as lessers in law. The suggestion that because coming out or being outed can lead to awful consequences it must always be wrong ignores the power of outing as a reclamation of power from the subjects of oppression. The outing of Aaron Schock didn't make his sexuality the referent object, rather it was his hypocrisy. Were this review written sixty years ago of course it would be different. In earlier times in the UK for instance, LGBT people were treated appallingly in law and in broader society alike. To out someone back then would have been to put them at a far greater aggregate risk than today. Were Schock outed back then, the attention would most likely be dedicated to pouring scorn on his sexuality, whereas today the scorn lies with his hypocrisy.
The outing of Aaron Schock demonstrates that moral absolutism has no place in politics, and retribution (despite its misgivings) is perfectly legitimate. Practices that have negative consequences as an almost necessary condition of their being practiced cannot be considered to be deontologically bad. Indeed nothing in this review suggests outing is trivial. It certainly is not trivial. For outing to be justified, as with any serious and non-trivial practice, the grievance made must be of as close to an equal magnitude as can be justified. Schock's actions were serious enough to warrant a serious response to undermine the legitimacy with which he claimed to vote on.
So where does this leave us? The key lesson of the outing of Aaron Schock is that absolutism has no place in politics. Cardinal sins exist as they are because they were labelled as such. Context is critically important in how we weigh up the use of nuclear options like outing. One must not press the button whimsically with a trivial disregard for the fallout. Before all else, one must have a just cause and a reasonable belief that a better world awaits as the dust settles. When Itay Hod pressed his nuclear button, he did so on the back of great offence and allowed for a precedent to be set that nuclear options mustn't remain forbidden. We end then with the understanding that whilst we must abandon the comfort of moral absolutes in the politics of resistance, we are equally obligated to dispense with the trivial, whatever that is of course.
Hirst, E. W. (1934). 'The Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule'. Philosophy 9(35). pp. 328-335. Cambridge Core [Online]. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/philosophy/article/categorical-imperative-and-the-golden-rule/8E92342117EDE6239E37F918D6F6D1C0
Hod, I. (2014). [Facebook] 3rd January. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/iamitayhod/posts/10153719602440624
Human Rights Council. (2011). Congressional Scorecard: Measuring Support For Equality In The 111th Congress. Available at: https://assets2.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/111thCongressional_Scorecard.pdf
Reiman, J. H. (1985). 'Justice, Civilisation, and the death penalty: answering Van Den Haag'. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 14(2). pp. 115-148. JSTOR [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265453?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Sosa, C. (2014). Outing Rep. Aaron Schock Is Completely Acceptable. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/aaron-schock-outing_b_4550604
The Trevor Project. (2019). Preventing Suicide: Facts About Suicide. Available at: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/