April 14, 2004
''Outing'' as a political strategyBy Ed Lasky
The ploy of 'outing'—— publicizing someone's religious heritage, sexual orientation, or ethnicity to discredit that person's beliefs or impugn his motivation —— is a disturbing manifestation of the increasingly polarized debates occurring in our nation over a range of issues. This phenomena has become an all—too—common tactic to attack an opponent, and has dangerous implications that have yet to be widely appreciated.
"Outing" has a long and sorrowful history in
This is the debased currency in which columnists like Pat Buchanan and Georgie Anne Geyer traffic. Their columns have been criticized by the ADL and many others for anti—Semitism because of the gratuitous emphasis placed on the Jewish heritage of some of their opponents. For example, Geyer, in an op—ed titled 'Inflammatory Views No Accident' (August 16,2002), took to task an article written by a researcher at a think—tank that criticized
Pat Buchanan has made a career out of attacking supporters of
Critics who have noted the Jewish background of various Bush officials include liberal Chris Mathews of MSNBC, Jason Vest of the leftist Nation magazine, and conservative columnist Robert Novak. Recently, the liberal magazine Adbusters published a list of conservatives the magazine opposes, and sordidly and unapologetically placed stars next to those the magazine believed were Jewish: an eerie and repugnant echo of the Nazis.
Such criticism is rarely directed towards other groups in
Christians are not immune from 'outing' either. In previous generations, Alfred Smith and John Kennedy were besmirched with charges of 'Popery.' Our current generation of religious bigots seems to find evangelicals a particular threat. For example, President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have had their actions unduly criticized for any hint of religious motivation. The faith—based initiatives of President Bush were roundly condemned, despite proof of their efficacy because they were viewed as attempts to proselytize. Since they were being promoted by a self—professed Christian they immediately fell into a suspect class. Some of the more extreme criticism has even accused Bush of harboring apocalyptic fantasies that drive his policies.
Those in the gay community who wish to expose the homosexuality of prominent people who have chosen to keep their sexuality private, have also employed 'outing.' This may be an attempt to make homosexuality more acceptable among the public, and to spur those so outed to accept their orientation and work to strengthen the gay community. The magazine Out has specialized in this tactic and has wielded it to harm those whose views it opposes. Since the magazine has a very liberal bent, it seems to take glee in publicizing the homosexuality of conservatives or family members of conservatives whose policies the magazine oppose.
For instance, the magazine has noted the daughter of Vice—President Dick Cheney is a lesbian, and has encouraged her to try to change her father's conservative ideology. More recently, on April 13th, Randall Terry wrote an op—ed for the Washington Times, 'Outing Out Magazine', which scathingly critiqued the magazine for paying his wayward son thousands of dollars to write scandalous and fallacious stories about him for the magazine. Since Terry is the founder for a conservative pro—life group, this can be seen as a political attack under the guise of a personal attack on Terry —— perhaps an attempt to silence him.
Related to, and enforcing the strategy of 'outing,' is the disgraceful practice of ad hominem attacks on people by critics who accuse them of betraying their 'group.' This can be considered a form of "outing," since it accuses people of not being true to their race, gender or ethnic group, and therefore being inauthentic, a phony, a traitor.
For instance, Condi Rice and Colin Powell have been called 'house slaves' by other blacks (most prominently, Harry Belafonte) for working in the Bush Administration. Ward Connerly is a black opponent of affirmative action who has been roundly condemned by many black political leaders as an "Uncle Tom."
Women are not a minority, but nevertheless can be subject to 'outing" as betrayers of their identity group. A new book, Bushwomen, by Laura Flanders, attacks various women in the Administration —— Condi Rice, Chris Whitman, Elaine Chao —— for betraying women as a class.
Such incipient tribalism threatens to tear our society apart. At the very least, groups are set to compete against each other, based on something other than the merits of their ideas and opinions.
People who employ such an 'outing' tactic are intellectually lazy. They rely on appeals to people's baser emotions to win arguments. They argue by proxy, by group identity, and employ the type of distorted group—think tyrants have used throughout history.
At a minimum, the quality of public discourse suffers from the chilling effect that such outpourings of prejudice may have on people's willingness to express opinions. Such attacks are meant not to engender discussion, but to end it. In a worst case scenario, weaker members of 'suspect' groups may feel compelled to bend over backwards to prove they are not motivated by personal interests. For example, a number of the most vociferous critics of
The practice of outing and the imposition of litmus tests for membership in a group are therefore dangerous to our political discourse. The media should provide a forum for a marketplace of ideas and promote free inquiry and frank discussion. When the pages and airwaves are used to broadcast prejudice, the media should be criticized for polluting the public space and for violating their responsibilities to the public.
Ed lasky adds:
In response to some valid criticism of the "Outing as a Political Tactic" the following addendum is offered.
The title of the article was poorly chosen. The stress should have been on the dangers of confusing the individual with a group based on immutable characteristics—such as race, religious heritage, or ethnicity.
Clearly you cannot "out" someone based on an obvious characteristic, such as race. But some have "outed" the religion or ethnicity of others to cast aspersions on the factual basis of their arguments or their motivation in making them.
For instance, the round of attacks on Jewish people arguing positions regarding the Middle East. How can this be attacked, while ignoring the background of the key players in the Administration who are not Jewish? Or how can it not be recognized that some of the most vociferous and public critics of Israel have a Jewish background: Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt, and others.
Immutable characteristics should not be held against people, nor should they give them added respect (as in those critics of Israel who begin their arguments by stating that they are Jewish —— presumably they feel this gives them a higher right to criticize Israel). This prejudice can only chill and degrade public discourse, and runs the risk of increasing sectarian strife and the further fragmentation our nation.
Conversely, some activists have tried to hold officials more responsible to what the critics proclaim is their group interest than to the nation as a whole. For example, Condi Rice and Colin Powell. In a sense these people are being "outed" for not truly being black in some people's eyes. This runs the risk of identity politics and incipient tribalism. Perhaps more attention should have been given to the topic of identity politics instead of trying to jimmy the issue into an article with "outing" in its title.
If there is any use of "outing" people it should be in the realm of identifying active membership in a political or business group which may be relevant in judging someone's bona fides. For instance, if someone is Jewish this should not matter; but if he is an active member of a pro—Israel group, perhaps this factor should come into play. I have noticed that many letters to the editor or op—eds will often identify the writer as belonging to a political group. This is acceptable.
America is strong because we let ideas compete in a public forum; this forum should not be polluted by attacks on a person's heritage or ethnicity. Argue with facts; prejudice is the lazy man's way to argue.