Those who try to serve their country as civic leaders have always been subject to scrutiny of their actions and motives, and they should be. Americans have the right to expect a lot out of their leaders, whether it be in the business, political, or religious realm. However, recently a more foolish and less useful type of criticism has become popular in the public sphere: guilt by association.
Guilt by association involves using someones connections, however tenuous, to an unpopular or immoral figure to defame them as a person. It has become especially popular in the political arena. During President Obama’s presidential run his opponents attempted to tie him to the inane ramblings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, because he had attended his church. He was also tied to former radical Bill Ayers because of a state senate campaign event that Bill Ayers had hosted for Obama. More recently Imam Abdul Rauf, the leader of a controversial initiative to build an Islamic community center near the site of Ground Zero in New York City, has been the subject of attacks on his associations with some raising suspicions about the project, because of alleged connections to the Saudi royal family.
All of this sets an immensely foolish standard for civic behavior. What determines a person’s character is not who he or she works with, but what they were working to do. You can draw unsavory connections to anyone if you look at immorality as if it were somehow contagious, and that working with someone to complete a goal means you agree with all of their beliefs.
For example, if simply working with or accepting the support of someone means that you must share all of their views, then all the Republican politicians who ever worked with Jesse Helms to close a legislative deal must be racists. After all, Helms was well known for voting against legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and filibustering against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That type of flawed reasoning could extend to other statesmen as well. Think about all the U.S. Presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose morality could be called into question, because they cooperated with human rights violators like Stalin to stop even worse dictators like Hitler.
All of these hypothetical situations are irrelevant because the truth is people never use guilt by association on themselves, but only on other people when it is convenient for their own biases. Obama supporters never liked the idea that the President could be held responsible for the ramblings of Reverend Wright, and Tea Partiers have never liked the idea that they could responsible for the racist and intolerant actions of some of their fellow protesters. Both groups are right to be upset with the idea that they are held responsible not only for their own actions, but for other people’s actions as well. Despite that, people from both ideological camps have no problem using the ludicrous guilt by association logic on those they disagree with.
Rather than judging people by who they do things with, we just judge people by what they actually do. Collaborating with a bad person to do a good thing is not ethically suspect. Assigning guilt to people simply because they have known or worked with someone with a bad reputation sets an extremely foolish precedent. If someone is racist, hateful, mean or immoral then it stands to reason that they will do racist, hateful mean things. The key to understanding a person’s moral beliefs is to inspect the deeds people have done in their lives, and not who they have done those deeds with.