Politics of Personal Destruction

MikeB in the comments raises a point about why people bother tracking down information on others, and making efforts to “out” people. He seems to believe this is wrong, and in many contexts I would agree with him. I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have as to what tactics are out of bounds, and which are in bounds. I think that’s a tricky topic, because the line is pretty fine. But I can discuss my feelings on the matter.

If you read professional agitators like Saul Alinsky, they speak on this topic as well, and Alinsky thought everything was on the table if you didn’t have a more ethical path available forward. That’s actually a high standard, if you think about it, but I think outing Horwitz meets that standard. The other side must have thought that too, which is why they used it against John Lott when he was caught doing it. I agree that was fair game too.

There’s really three levels I think activists are entitled to live their lives on; their political lives, their personal lives, and their private lives. In a political struggles, one’s political life is fair game. Their personal lives can be too, depending on how much of an effort there is to keep it private, which is the part I think we should have an awful prejudice against violating. Let me give some examples.

A few years ago I smeared a Board Member of CeaseFire PA with something in her personal life. But it was something in her personal life she made no real attempt to keep private, as it was on an easy to find public web site, under the same name she practiced her activism with. I thought it was fair game, and wanted to make a point to her about tolerance. This was on the heels of outing another CeaseFire PA board member we had strong evidence was a vile troll, posting racist garbage on web sites pretending to be a gun rights advocate. In this case he did make an attempt to conceal his identity, but his tactic was so vile, disgusting, and destructive to our cause, that he really left no choice other than to expose him once we had all gathered enough evidence.

Outing Josh Horwitz alleged sock puppet is attacking his political existence, not his personal existence, and certainly not his private existence. He’d be using said sock puppet to further his side on this political struggle. His identity is well known within the issue, and he freely associates his name with it in his role as a paid gun control advocate. His sock puppetry is directly related to the issue, only crosses into his personal life in so much as it reveals him to be an angry bastard, so it’s within bounds.

Now if a gun control advocate, even a professional one, had been found having discussions with other consenting adults on, say, an S&M forum, and made a reasonable effort to keep that private, or keep it separated from the issue, exposing that would be out of bounds. Back to the previous example, if I had been forwarded a private e-mail from Ms. Stein about her involvement in MUFON, or seen her at a meetup, I would not have used it. I would also argue someone using an alias (not a sock puppet) in an attempt to keep their personal and political lives separated, and their private life private, is also out of bounds for outing.

But using personal or private information in for a political purpose is completely different from using it purely for harassment or intimidation purposes, which is always wrong, and often unlawful. I think everyone, even gun control advocates, are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy and fair play in their personal and private lives. We should proceed on that assumption moving forward.

13 thoughts on “Politics of Personal Destruction”

  1. I don’t agree that Alinsky’s standard is “high”. It’s actually pretty low: “Don’t do it unless you need to”. The only standard lower than that is “don’t do it unless you get half a chance to”.

    Alinsky’s standard is that the end justifies whatever means you feel are necessary. His standard relies on the belief that he himself is just sooo virtuous and infallibly wise, that he gets to exempt himself from ordinary standards of right and wrong. He’s a fanatic.

    Even if it’s a genuinely good cause, the cause is not the only thing on Earth that matters. Civility, democracy, rule of law, fairness, honesty, civilization, human decency, all that stuff matters too. Some kinds of foulness aren’t worth it just for the sake of temporary political advantage. Even fanatics suspect that to be the case; that’s why they spend so much time reassuring each other so loudly that the stakes are so high.

    However: As for Horwitz and Lott, I don’t see either case as ordinary dirt-digging. Finding out and publicizing what porn they watch would be dirt-digging, and it would be 100% wrong. But Horwitz and Lott acted unethically in the practice of their advocacy, and got caught fair and square. There’s a clear sense in which it’s relevant, and furthermore, I’d argue that people who act unethically in the public sphere should be publicly humiliated for it, to keep them honest. Remember Mencken’s definition of “conscience”: That little voice that says somebody may be watching. Some of us need that kind of “conscience” more than others.

    Sockpuppeting is venial; it’s not like what Michael Bellisles did. But they still did things that decent people should not do.

  2. In fact, it sounded almost EXACTLY like what Sebastian said.

    I smell a sock puppet. ;)

  3. It’s a high standard because there’s, 99% of the time probably, a better way to go about things. After the fight over judicial filibusters last decade, we have the term “nuclear option” in our political vernacular. I would suggest destroying someone personally is a “nuclear option” in that context.

  4. While I agree with your hypothetical example of a gun control advocate posting under an alias on S&M boards. With Ms. Stein, however, I don’t think learning about the involvement with MUFON is in the same category. Her beliefs are just so far out there that they give some perspective on her credibility on basically any topic.

    On a similar vein, if someone was posting on a S&M board under an alias, while simultaneously being anti-porn or anti-gay, that starts to be fair game as well in my eyes.

  5. You must also consider that Josh is using his sock puppet to rave about how awesome Josh is.

  6. Mike3020000,

    do you think that lying about who you are is an acceptable method of convincing the public to believe in something?

    Because that is what posting under a different name is, isn’t it?
    Lying about your identity,

  7. Did Publius tout how great Madison et al were? When caught, did Jay and Hamilton cover up and deny their nom de plume?

    That’s only half snark.

    I don’t have a problem with anonymity in particular, I think there is a distinction though, both in fact and intent, between anonymity for practical reasons (fear of unlawful repercussions, desire to avoid clouding the message with people’s personal prejudices against you) and creating a sock puppet to bolster your case and talk you up.

    He was on HuffPo right? Friendly ground, where repercussions were unlikely and where using his own name would add credibility for the majority of the audience not detract from it.

    Different situation entirely.

  8. They wrote the Federalist papers with aliases. Who wrote what wasn’t discovered until Hamilton died, and the list became public. The true identities of the authors, at the time of their publishing, were a closely guarded secret. They were trying to influence the vote in favor of ratification, and to set a direction for the new constitution.

    Of course, that’s different than what Horwitz and Lott did.

  9. Sebastian, Thanks for a great post. Your careful delineation between what’s acceptable and what’s not was well done.

    “Outing Josh Horwitz alleged sock puppet is attacking his political existence, not his personal existence, and certainly not his private existence. “

    Yet, it still sounds like rationalization of shabby behavior. But, I admit it’s pretty good rationalization.

  10. MikeB: You’re subscribing to the threads through the notify feature, but your e-mail is bouncing back. Same one you’ve always used, but it’s coming back undeliverable. Thought you might want to know.

  11. As with everything else Mike, if you don’t agree with it, there will be no convincing you. It’s rationalization, to you. At least with this one, you at least admit the argument is good, even if it isn’t quite good enough to change your mind.

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