In Defense of Hypocrisy
Since attention, good and bad, is exactly what Gawker was looking for when they started sniffing around Christine O’Donnell’s dirty laundry, I’m hesitant to reward them with more of it. But I do want to highlight Scott Lemieux’s response to the exceedingly thin justification Gawker offered up for their sleazy gossip mongering:
Once you start defining principles at that kind of high level of abstraction, “hypocrisy” charges become a solvent that completely dissolve privacy for no public benefit. Decent people try to conduct relationships with other people according to some ethical and moral principles, whether religious or secular (and, yes, feminist principles very much count as ethical and moral standards), and humans being what they are don’t always apply their values with perfect integrity. If any deviation from abstract moral principles justifies this kind of story, everything about pretty much anybody is fair game. “Hypocrisy” can be a reasonable justification if we’re talking about personal behavior that contradicts standards that a public official wants to impose on the public through law. If you’re making adultery a central argument in why a president should be impeached, then it’s fair to say that your adultery is a relevant issue. But once the standards being violated become more vague and less relevant to public policy, I get off the bus. O’Donnell believes a in a lot of bad policies, but as far as I can tell has never claimed that premarital abstinence should be a legal requirement. So her sex life (or, in this case, non-sex life) isn’t a matter of public interest, and in trying to claim noble motives, the editors of Gawker are embarrassing themselves.
Of course, if they really wanted to avoid embarrassment, the thing to do would have been to never publish the story in the first place; that bridge has been pretty thoroughly burned.
But on to the larger point: personal hypocrisy, as a vice among politicians and public figures, is grossly overrated. If a hardline anti-immigration reform senator is caught employing an undocumented housekeeper, it may tell us a great deal about his moral fortitude as an individual; but it tells us next to nothing about the value of the policies he is proposing, nor about his competence in implementing those policies. I’m not saying that political figures shouldn’t be prosecuted for illegal acts when the hypocrisy is regarding a legal matter, but this obsession with how politicians conduct themselves in their personal lives is at best foolish, and at worst — as it was in the Gawker story — deeply invasive and cruel.