For conservatives, the universal outrage over Donald Sterling’s racist comments performed the useful function of turning public attention from the similarly appalling remarks by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who’d been embarrassingly embraced by some leaders on the right. At the same time, the anti-Sterling hysteria badly damaged public discourse by erasing essential distinctions between private and public forms of expression.
By any reasonable standards, Bundy’s offensive comments count as a far more serious breach of decency than Sterling’s. The basketball billionaire intended his warnings against association with black people only for the ears of his mistress, but the rebellious rancher clearly meant the broadest public consumption for his moronic speculations on whether African-Americans might have been better off as slaves. When Bundy volunteered to a gaggle reporters, including those from the New York Times, to tell “something I know about the Negro” he clearly intended to share these moronic insights with the public at large.
Nevertheless, Bundy suffered no significant punishment for his words while Sterling faces a life-time ban from basketball, a $2.5 million fine, and a concerted effort to force sale of his team. Of course, this contrast stems in part from the fact that Sterling has so much more to lose, and is rightly judged by a higher standard. Before his fifteen minutes of notoriety, Bundy was a Nevada nobody, but Sterling, as owner of a basketball franchise in the nation’s second largest city, was a powerful celebrity who relied on the athletic excellence of his mostly black players. As a business decision, it’s easy to understand why his fellow owners would want to sever all connections between Sterling and the NBA, even though it took illegally taped snippets of strictly-private conversation to force their hand.
Sterling remains indefensible as a public personality but it’s still worth protecting the greater leeway that society has always accorded to purely private words, and even thoughts. It’s true that the “mistress from hell” (in Donald Trump’s memorable phrase) might have felt wounded by her sugar daddy’s repeated pleas to stop appearing publicly with black people. But his benighted words would have hurt or offended no other single soul if she (or someone else) hadn’t chosen to publicize them.
As a general principle, public pronouncements do more damage than any private opinions, no matter how hateful.
I advanced that notion in a particularly controversial way in 1997 when commenting on the release of Howard Stern’s conspicuously successful, autobiographical comedy movie, PRIVATE PARTS. At the time, fans of the film praised its portrayal of Stern as a happily married, doting husband and father, who only acted the part of a lurid, drooling sex maniac to achieve success for his radio show. I also cited the film’s charming ability to make Stern’s phenomenal popularity look more comprehensible, but I made the point that The King of All Media’s public endorsement of vice mattered far more than his presumed private virtue. Only his wife and daughters, along with a few friends and neighbors, got the benefit of his personal values while millions of listeners received his daily messages mocking those very values he purportedly honored.
This contrasted directly with the televangelists of that time who preached godliness and self-restraint but, in a series of grotesque scandals pursued degrading and destructive forms of sexual indulgence behind closed doors. Though the pornographic preachers certainly reached higher levels of hypocrisy than any shock jock, the damage from their behavior was limited to a few victims, at least before their ultimate exposure.
Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld famously observed that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” but at least hypocritical behavior honors virtue enough to offer some tribute. The hypocrite with his hidden vices doesn’t demand respect or acceptance for his loathsome conduct.
In that context, Donald Sterling surely nurtured racial bias long before his recent exposure but for most of his life he kept that bigotry well enough hidden to win three different awards from the NAACP. The fact that he declined to go public with hate-filled opinions counts as a good thing, not a bad thing.
In affirming the crucial difference between brazen and bashful attitudes to bad conduct and outrageous opinions, it’s worth citing an often-misunderstood aspect of Jewish law. Our religious tradition draws a clear dividing line between sins that are well-hidden and those openly flaunted. In this regard, consider different approaches to the traditional Orthodox prohibition on driving in cars on the Sabbath. To this day, many guilty Jews will park several blocks away from synagogue and walk the rest of the way to the services in order to avoid advertising the fact that they’ve disregarded an aspect of the tradition. Others will pull up directly across from the sanctuary entrance and harangue anyone who will listen about how stupid and outmoded it is for 21st century Americans to shun driving one day a week.
Under Jewish law, both parties have violated the Sabbath but the one who trumpets that fact counts as significantly more blameworthy. He communicates his disrespect openly and undermines community standards, but the discreet motorist who tries to hide his unsanctioned behavior actually demonstrates some respect for those standards.
In the same way, a public figure who expresses contempt for African-Americans in a press conference with national reporters shows utter disregard for national norms of at least superficial deference to the dignity of long-victimized racial groups. On the other hand, an old man who mostly keeps quiet on racial issues, while expressing his true bigotry only to his girl friend in a conversation he logically assumed would remain private, if nothing else signals his acceptance of standards of inter-racial respect.
This doesn’t mean that the loathsome Mr. Sterling deserves our respect. But it does argue that it’s worth treating private sentiments, no matter how hateful, with somewhat less indignation than we apply to public statements.