Do you really want to know?

14
Nov
2008

In all the recent uproar over the passing of Prop H8, one of the items that has been central to a lot of accounts is the use of public databases like this one to identify supporters and opponents. As required by law, financial contributions to campaigns are part of the public record. I won’t get into a discussion here of whether I think anonymous speech should be protected, or even whether giving money is the same as voicing one’s opinion about something. But there are a lot of troubling implications to the ease with which these databases are available online.

I have read many stories on the web of people who were identified as donors (to either side) being taken to task for their donations. And in some ways, that is justifiable. Should we not all have the courage of our convictions? If someone is running a business for example with a significant gay clientele, and that person gave money in support of prop 8, does it not make sense for the clientele to have that information so that they can decide if they will continue to patronize this business?

In a pluralistic society, people hiding behind “religious conviction” as a reason to be excused from any responsibility for their actions taking away civil rights is troubling. Is any type of view ok in the name of religion? At what point are there consequences for one’s actions? What if the proposition had taken away interracial marriage? What if the proposition had been to vote to make all people forcibly convert to one religion? What if it had been to outlaw public speaking or right of assembly, but only for a particular group? The important point here is that some rights are not (or should not be) subject to a vote. Some rights are beyond the tyranny of the majority to decide. Marriage is such a right. And because such fundamental rights questions are at stake, people are bound to feel passionately.

And because passions are so (rightfully) high, the ease of use of accessing this and other personal information ups the potential for abuses of all kinds by all sides. In absolutely zero cases is anyone justified in harassment, threats or intimidation towards anyone on any side of this (or any) issue. That said, since major power in this country is expressed in dollars and consumption, people clearly have a right to all the information possible when making choices about their spending habits. In the same way that I don’t want my money going to a company that runs sweat shops or releases toxic chemicals into the environment, I don’t want to spend in an establishment knowing that my money will be used to rescind my civil rights later on.

And let’s face it: Giving money to a cause represents a greater belief in that cause than passively supporting it (especially for those on tight budgets). While it is true that one can be an effective advocate without giving money, people who don’t feel strongly about an issue certainly don’t bother to give money.

So, as an advocate of marriage equality, there are one set of questions dealing with the use of this database relating to finding those who have been opposed to prop 8. But is there not another set, perhaps as troubling when looking at the side one agrees with? For example, I have been badgering people for some time about the proposition, trying to raise as much awareness and money as I could. When I was looking up my contributions, it was just as easy to look up some of the people I had pleaded with. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the generous giving of a person who had told me that he had indeed donated, but not how much. I also found myself to be somewhat disturbed upon finding out that good friends, gay people with a stake in this and who are not exactly hurting financially, who had in fact implied or outright told me they had given money, were completely absent from the database.

The minute I looked up one friend and was disappointed, a voice inside me said “don’t look up anyone else”. But then I did. I looked up three more friends before I stopped  myself to ask “Why am I doing this?” I didn’t know exactly, but it was certainly a very simple thing to do. All I had to do was type in part of a name and a state or city or zip.  What was I hoping for? That the passion I feel for this particular issue would be matched by others? Looking to point some finger of blame by inaction? Assuage my own feelings of inadequacy in fighting for something so important and losing?

Whatever the reasons, they weren’t (and aren’t) worth much. It isn’t worth knowing and isn’t worth worrying about. Public or private witch-hunts are never very productive. What is productive is to try to be understanding, to reach out and educate and explain, and set a good example. It is important to live honestly, and to engage others with as much compassion and understanding as possible.

If these records were public yet offline, requiring one to go down to some musty county clerk’s office to go through them, we might think twice about consulting them due to the difficulty. Sometimes a little extra effort to get at information might be a very good thing. It would make each of us ask ourselves whether we really cared about the information in the database, enough to take the time and a trip downtown. As it is, the ubiquitous nature of easy internet access takes any deliberation and strain out of the picture. We can have just the most fleeting curiosity and satisfy it in a few easy clicks. But do we really want to know? What happens to the information once we have it? Is it really empowering, or like so many pieces of ugly information more of a burden than not?

I am not advocating that this information not be publicly available on the internet. On balance, I think the public is served better by erring on the side of more information and better access, not less. But I think before accessing this and other types of public record, we would all do well to take a few minutes to understand our own motivations and think about the implications.