Editorial: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Private Choices, Public Speech, and our Democratic Processes


When President Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays serving in the military, much of the apparent debate focused on servicemembers have “private lives” that should be respected. As we looked back from 1993, we could see how much of the debate over gay rights over the three previous decades (and especially the management of the AIDS crisis) had focused on the right to private choice of intimate consenting adult partners, and the right to be left alone thereafter.  From a libertarian perspective, this focus on “privacy” seemed a lot more wholesome than focusing on homosexuals as a “minority group” who probably bore no personal responsibility for choices for what seemed like a largely immutable and even biological matter.


We know that the President and Congress tried to solve this dilemma with the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell” law, which would in many cases increase the witch-hunts in the military and set up a conundrum for cultural debate in many related areas.


The development of the Internet, however, would underscore a novel perspective on the way that we view our “personal stuff”: our own lives, after all, gradually become a form of “speech.”  Gay men, for example, often regard their choices of partners as statements of what they value in other people (an observation that, in a psychological sense, made gay expression seem like a serious threat to unit cohesion in the military issue). But, as the debate over gay civil unions and gay marriage grew, traditional families had to face the same paradox. Their relationships are about more than just love and commitment and intimacy within the home. They are expressions of public values. “Family” would bridge a necessary gap in human growth, between engagement with others “as people” and standing back and setting one’s own personal goals. As such, family was both a private and personal experience and still a very public matter. Conservative columnists would unleash a tirade of editorials defending the legal and public meaning of marriage as extending beyond the private experience in the home. After a couple decades where marriage and family were viewed as “personal choices” somewhat disconnected from individual self-worth, the public meaning of marriage and family is making quite a comeback.


After all, society, for most of history, has consisted of conflicts between people socialized into various levels of familial, political, religious, national, and cultural groupings. In a democracy, most speech has been organized. People elect representatives, and use their First Amendment right of “expressive association” to hire people to speak for their interests.  Sometimes it gets pretty silly, as people throw money at lobbyists ("special interests") and mass-email prewritten letters to their elected pols. A major variation of this concept is “collective bargaining” – through unions -- a right usually guaranteed by law in the workplace.  Even without representation, people can certainly make one-sided arguments. For example, some parents could complain that my freedom to self-publish a website like this, with my own level of personal candor, makes it harder for them to raise their kids according to their own values.


In school, however, we are supposed to learn a much more idealized sense of speech. At Arlington’s then prestigious Washington-Lee High School (in 1960) I had a history teacher in eleventh grade Va. and US History who insisted on making his exams all essay. His theory was that if we understood fully all of the social controversies of an earlier society – say colonial Virginia and Williamsburg – we could better look at the contemporary world objectively. So if you understood slavery and indentured servitude in the colonies, you could understand racism, segregation, and the military draft in the modern world.  The same parallelism exists for major issues today, although school systems struggle in political battles with parents about acceptable curricula with matters like religion and sexuality.


Nevertheless, the study of humanities (in high school and college) – social studies, literature, philosophy – is supposed to lead to much more objective thinking, and the ability to see how others perceive a social or political situation. Educated young adults are supposed to understand the bigger picture, and they will tend to demand the end of old-fashioned tribal prejudices and social behaviors.


Technology – ranging from low cost desktop or on demand publishing, to video filmmaking, and most of all simple weblogs and sites on the Internet – make it possible for even just one person, at very low cost, to accumulate and compile a large volume of material on various troubling subjects and present them in such a way that the visitor can become familiar with the scope of the issues much more rapidly than the visitor could have in the past from conventional media sources (books, newspapers, periodical, libraries, movies, broadcast media).  There are some institutional sites that do this, like Wikipedia, and I have done this with my own sites, with an organizational structure around my books.


The conventional way for most people to advance themselves is to compete in an established social hierarchy, and prove that they can go to bat for other people (usually family members). Necessarily, this usually means giving up some objectivity in order to look after the interests of those to whom one is accountable (either family or workplace, or both). I am disinclined to do this, to accept socialization imposed on me by others, and especially to compete publicly according to paradigms defined by others. I don’t want to drill too far into this personality issue in this essay (I deal with it in other pieces on this site). This gets tricky because even my “private choices” may be perceived by others as an indirect commentary about my attitudes toward them.      


The capability to publish such encyclopedia-like material is, then, very interesting to me. There is no question that the efficient delivery of scientific, social and political information adds wealth to a society, and I can certainly be part of that.  The "database" gains credibility by including both researched materials and personal incidents that reinforce each other. There is, as always, a down side. The needs of various people are considered comparatively in such a view, but no one person (not even family) gets deferential consideration over anyone else.  For the sake of completeness, any subject matter is fair game, and no allowance is made for the practical effect that many people feel squeamish pondering certain matters and would wonder why an author would let himself be linked to that kind of controversy. Furthermore, knowledge that is generally viewed as constructive and valuable can sometimes be dangerous and overly tempting to unstable people when collected overly efficiently. As well known in intelligence circles, pieces of unclassified information can, when combined, have intelligence value—the “combination chemotherapy effect.” Chemistry, for example, is a valuable subject, but some information about chemistry in the wrong hands can lead to tremendous and sudden destruction. There have been rare cases where a person’s scientific discovery, while a valuable component of knowledge in the wrong hands, would have proved catastrophic if self-published and allowed into the wrong hands, as was the case with the work of German scientist Heisenberg (as in the film “Copenhagen”).


Anyone who sets out to do this, then, puts himself, and possibly others associated with him, in a potentially precarious position.  Google can make anyone a celebrity, and raises the question, “when does one own his right of publicity?”  One of the most troubling aspects of all of the controversy around social networking sites (like myspace.com) and personal weblogs is that they can seem to provide an attractive, self-owned alternative to conventional familial, social and "political" interaction with others; but when used this way (without taking some responsibility for others), the "publicity" may attract the wrong people and make enemies (or generate enticement allegations), no matter how valid the content is objectively. (A related issue, of course, is COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, and Internet censorship, links below.) So often in the workplace, one is paid to advance the interest of one group of constituents and advance only the customer’s point of view, a process commonplace and accepted (and supported by the “right of expressive association”) yet potentially intellectually dishonest. This is particularly the case with issues dealing with sexuality. Certainly, "conventional" competitive influences pressure "family providers" into dishonest and unethical behaviors ("The Cheating Culture") so there are different sides to this "political" geometric solid. 


This brings me back to my starting point about gays in the military. It had seemed to me that the problem could be resolved by not allowing soldiers to promote themselves (either on base or in the public media) with respect to sexual issues. I even advanced that view in my 1997 book. Yet it became apparent that this kind of think would affect many other areas. Sexuality is logically connected to many other political and social areas, and shutting down its open discussion would shut down most political dissent. Yet, imagine the issues as they would affect law enforcement professionals, underwriters, lobbyists, and especially teachers. That’s why I have advanced the notion that people with certain kinds of publicly sensitive jobs should not promote themselves on the Internet at all. The alternative is censorship of what they say, and intellectual dishonesty. The links below give the details. In any case, in many occupations, professionals would have to accept the idea that they had to manage their publicity rights very carefully, or else simply not enter the professions. I have recently faced this issue with teaching.


We have, then, a new philosophical issue. Truth is a continuum, and it ought to be available to everyone, efficiently. But, as Heisenberg and Bohr pointed out, at a certain level it becomes unknowable. We learn that various virtues come into conflict. Intellectual objectivity with critical thinking, as you learn it in school (math, science, humanities) is a virtue, but so is loyalty and connectedness to others, and in a real world (particularly when there is war or externally imposed hardship) these come into conflict. People have real needs, and these must be met by deferential attention from others, as in the family. Truth, as we sometimes see even in well-written high school themes, becomes mixed with Faith.


It’s interesting to take the perspective here from the Bible, even if the motives are secular. Jesus developed an all-encompassing view of morality, and drew attention to himself and made himself famous in a world with no Internet, no myspace.com, no Google. There is an underlying similarity here to what happens today. Jesus, in his many parables, seemed to go against the grain of meritocratic thinking and individualism, emphasizing sharing or burdens and socialization. He intimated that one sometimes has to live under adverse political circumstances than one cannot overturn, and seemed to support social solidarity indeed. What made the political leaders mad is that he claimed that their authority did not mean anything even if they were not to be overthrown. So He drew everything together by giving it a new meaning, which many people found unacceptable.


But later, throughout history, there would occur technological leaps, like the printing press, that would allow people more independence in their exploration and publication of new thoughts and ideas. Martin Luther would take advantage of this, to challenge the hegemony of the Church, only to settle into his own form of personal commitment and conservatism.


Today, many people live in political systems that do not allow them to speak freely or collect and publish information. They must live in familial and social solidarity and value each other as human beings regardless of their personal talents and choices. People can be tested in these circumstances whether the lives of specific others matter as much as ideas. (An extreme example that could happen in the early 1960s: if a white man wanted to go south an register African Americans to vote, his family could be threatened.) Yet one wonders. Social solidarity and obedience was critical to the Jews who did survive the Holocaust, but had they become politically vocal earlier, could Hitler have been avoided? And later, they have the best of motives in establishing their state, yet they must trample the individual rights of others in doing so.


Personal freedom to learn and publish has always been associated with advancement, and it has always put speakers and others at risk. Likewise, authoritarian systems can deliver moral “rightness” and claim that they take care of people. At the cost of personal choice and expression, authoritarian or hierarchal moral systems can even give many people some sense of defined "meaning."  In the meantime, those of us who would be activists must make tough moral choices about how we go about things. We wind up asking ourselves, "Whom do I work for?"


©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


Essay on professionalism and publicity

Essay, "the right to be listened to"

Proposed blogging policy

COPA link

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