Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hypocrisy and its Discontents















By now we’ve all heard that Bishop Eddie L. Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia has been charged with coercing several young men from his congregation into sexual activity. Long stands accused of preying on members of the elite cohort of teenage boys he “handpicked” for his LongFellows Youth Academy (yes, it really was called that). While the teens who joined the group thought they were going to be offered spiritual guidance, the young men allege that instead Long offered them fancy cars, a swanky crash pad, and exotic vacations in exchange for “sessions of kissing, oral sex or masturbation.”

What is it with these crusading homophobes and their penchant for having sex with other men?

Remember Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), the staunch opponent of gay rights who was arrested at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport on charges of soliciting sex in a men’s room stall? Or how about megachurch leader Ted Haggard, who allegedly paid a man for sex (and methamphetamine) over a three-year period? And who will ever forget antigay activist George Rekers, who hired an escort from rentboy.com to handle his “luggage” during a 10-day trip to Europe?

In moments like this one, it’s hard not to gloat as yet other self-righteous gay-basher proves himself just another common hypocrite. And gloat we should. But I must confess there is a part of me that gets a bit uneasy when it comes to flinging the “H-word” around the virtual public sphere—even when the hypocrite label seems so richly deserved, as certainly appears to be the case with Bishop Long.

Don’t get me wrong: I relish the sweet justice of seeing another foot soldier in the army of intolerance hoisted on his own petard as much as the next guy. And I’m certainly not one to question the moral imperative to do as one says and say as one does. It’s just that every time I find myself joining in the fun of flogging the latest hypocrite, I can’t help wondering why it is that everyone—and I mean everyone—loves to hate a hypocrite. Indeed, nothing seems to unite commentators from across the political spectrum these days like a good hypocrisy scandal. In the face of Long’s misdeeds, Christian moralists can condemn him as a failed heterosexual, while progressives can underscore the breach between word and deed without buying into the anti-gay values that have been so spectacularly transgressed. Everyone’s happy.

And that’s what's got me worried. The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to wonder just what it is about hypocrites that gets us all so exercised—especially we tolerant-types who like to think of ourselves as the kind of people who regard sexual lives (even of public figures) as no one’s business but one's own.

That’s the dilemma when something like the Bishop Long story breaks, right? On the one hand, we want to make as much political hay of these embarrassing revelations as we can, but on the other hand, we usually pride ourselves on defending the right of consenting adults to do whatever they want to in private with their bodies. The problem is that when a prominent conservative moralist gets caught with his pants down, we can start to look pretty hypocritical ourselves if we throw our paeans to privacy rights and sexual self-determination out the window and gleefully hop on the ridicule bandwagon.

Enter the idea of hypocrisy, which seems to get us out of this dilemma. Hypocrisy lets us call out Bishop Long not because we think sex between men is wrong, but because he broke his word. So, we get to maintain our principles while still pouncing on him. Problem solved.

But in solving one problem, maybe we've really just created another, more serious one. It seems to me that when a scandal like this one erupts, it is something of a moral cop-out to harp on Bishop Long’s hypocrisy if we don’t also take the opportunity to call out the inhumanity of his homophobia—not to mention the issue of taking advantage of his position of power and prestige to coerce trusting young people into sex. But every time we hurl the H-word, we create the impression that Bishop Long’s real crime was failing to live up to his own values--when in fact the problem lies with the lameness of his homophobic values themselves.

So yes, let’s call out the hypocrisy, but we also have to recognize that charges of hypocrisy serve complex political purposes. It’s a lot easier and more crowd-pleasing to denounce Bishop Long’s hypocrisy than it is to engage his homophobia head-on (I know, yet another horrible pun), but that’s what we’ve got to keep our critical sights trained upon.

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