Oliver Sipple

post by KatjaGrace · 2021-02-19T07:00:18.788Z · LW · GW · 12 comments

The other day I read Wikipedia arguably too much, and consequently came to know the story of Oliver Sipple. Here’s my summary of the story according to these two Wikipedia pages and this page:

In the September of 1975, Oliver (‘Billy’) Sipple was an ex-marine of thirty-three, injured in Vietnam and living in San Francisco. He was in and out of the veteran’s hospital, six years into civilian life.

One afternoon, he stood in a crowd of thousands of people to see the visiting President Gerald Ford leave a San Francisco hotel from across the street. Ford stopped to wave. Suddenly, a shot sounded, and Oliver saw a woman nearby adjusting the aim of her revolver. He lunged and grabbed her arm, sending the second bullet into the hotel, injuring a man inside.

Oliver was thanked for saving the president, and celebrated as a hero by the media. A heroic veteran.

Soon the media learned that he was in fact a heroic gay veteran.

Oliver had shared his sexual orientation with with the San Francisco gay community—or at least he had worked at a gay bar, paraded for gay pride, demonstrated for gay rights, helped in the (LGBT) Imperial Court System, and worked on the campaign to elect openly gay board of supervisors candidate Harvey Milk. But he hadn’t shared it with his family in Detroit, who had more old-fashioned impressions about the morality of homosexuality. He also hadn’t shared it with the world at large, who after all, lived at a time when evidence of a gay person being a public hero was considered fascinating news.

How did the media learn about this? Perhaps there were many sources, or would have been eventually. But the morning after the shooting, two prominent gay activists each outed Oliver to the San Francisco Chronicle. One was Reverend Ray Broshears, leader of the ‘Lavender Panthers’. The other was Oliver’s own friend, Harvey Milk.


Harvey is reported to have explained privately to a friend, “It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”

The next day, Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who received these messages, reported to the world that Oliver was gay. He added that Oliver was friends with Harvey Milk, and speculated that President Ford hadn’t invited him to the White House because of his sexual orientation.

Somewhere in here, Oliver asked that the media not report on the topic of his sexual orientation, lest his family or current employer learn of it. It’s not clear to me whether this was in time for them to definitively know that he didn’t want them to when they first did it, since apparently Caen ‘couldn’t contact him’.

At any rate, the topic was reported on thoroughly. Gay activists called for his recognition as a gay hero. He was deluged by reporters, and hid at a friend’s house, at which point they turned to interviewing Harvey Milk. Harvey opined that President Ford’s gratitude would indeed have flowed more generously had Oliver been straight.

Oliver’s mother was purportedly harassed by her neighbors, and declared her intent never to speak to him again. He was estranged from his family. His father at some point instructed his brother to forget that he had a brother.

Oliver sued the reporter Caen and numerous newspapers and publishers for the invasion of his privacy. The suit was dismissed, but he fought on. In 1984 a state court of appeals held that he had become news, and his sexual orientation was part of the story.

Oliver didn’t do well after becoming a hero. He drank heavily, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, put on weight, and needed a pacemaker. Over a drink, he was heard to say that he regretted grabbing the gun.

It is said that he eventually reconciled with his family, but it is also said that his father didn’t let him come to his mother’s funeral, so granting both stories it may have been a late or mild reconciliation.

One February day in 1989, Oliver’s friend found him dead in his San Francisco apartment, alongside a bottle of Jack Daniels and a running television. He was 47.

Years later, journalistic ethics professors found this an instructive class discussion topic.


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comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-02-20T02:15:12.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It’s an interesting case from a deontological perspective. If it wasn’t ok to invade his privacy, but he’s dead and his story’s fully publicized, is it now ok to keep on talking about it? Is there a meaningful sense in which we can fail to treat the dead as an end in themselves?

comment by Idan Arye · 2021-02-20T12:26:35.310Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is pulling the lever after the trolley had passed still a murder?

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-02-20T19:43:36.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the closer framing is something like: if you're the 100,000th person to deliberately run your car over a person's body, are you liable for vehicular manslaughter?

comment by Idan Arye · 2021-02-20T21:53:19.671Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Manslaughter? Probably not - you did not contribute to that person's death. You are, however, guilty of:

  1. Desecration of the corpse.
  2. Obstructing the work of the sanitation workers (it's too late for paramedics) that can't remove the body from the road because of the endless stream of cars running over it.
  3. You probably didn't count 100k vehicles running over that body. A bystander who stayed there for a couple of days could have, but since you are one of the drivers you probably only witness a few cars running over that person - so as far as you know there is a slim chance they are still alive.

I may be taking the allegory too far here, but I feel these offenses can map quite well. Starting from the last - being able to know that all the damage is done. In Sipple's case, this is history so it's easy to know that all the damage was already done. He can't be outed again. His family will not be harassed again by their community, and will not estrange him again. His life will not be ruined again, and he will not die again.

Up next - interfering with the efforts to make things better. Does this really happen here? I don't think so. On the contrary - talking about this, establishing that this is wrong, can help prevent this from happening to other people. And it's better to talk about cases from the past, where all the damage is already done, than about current cases that still have damage potential.

This leaves us with the final issue - respecting the dead. Which is probably the main issue, so I could have just skipped the other two points, but I took the trouble of writing them so I might as well impose on you the trouble of reading them. Are we really disrespecting Oliver Sipple by talking about him?

Sipple did not want to be outed because he did not want his family to know and he did not want his employer to know. They all know, but even after they were originally told about this, Sipple probably did want want them to be constantly reminded and harassed about this. But... are discussions about this bringing reporters to his surviving family members? I doubt it. This issue is no longer about his sexual orientation, it's about the journalism ethics now, and there is no point in interviewing his parents and asking them what they think about their son being gay.

Given all that - I don't think talking about this case should be considered as a violation of Sipple's wish to not be outed.

comment by Maximum_Skull · 2021-02-20T07:41:49.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There won't be any more harm done to Oliver by spreading the story, so, at least from utilitarian-ish point of view, the case is clear.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-02-20T10:12:32.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, but that’s why it’s interesting.

From a utilitarian perspective, is Oliver’s outing morally redeemed by using him as an example in journalistic ethics classes? Or would it be, if it helped reduce the incidence of future privacy invasions?

If so, then Harvey Milk is a hero in this story. He not only made Oliver into a gay hero, probably saving more than one life in the long run by advancing the cause of gay rights, but he also gave us a great example of the consequences of privacy invasion that we can use in ethics classes. A two-fer!

That doesn’t feel right.

Maybe the way to make sense of it is this:

Although we can find redeeming value in continuing to talk about the story of Oliver Sipple, there’s a certain tone we must take. It needs to be somewhat ashamed, noting the paradox, condemning the privacy invasion even as we seem to perpetuate it, insisting that we try to treat Sipple as an end in himself even in death. In this way, the ethics lesson maintains its force.

Consequentialism, then, dictates that we use a “deontological” framing.

And that’s what I think is interesting: deontology not as an ethical system but as a storytelling technique that’s necessary for consequentialism to work with the human psyche.

comment by Gurkenglas · 2021-02-20T19:41:53.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are people that have preferences about the world after they die, they can acausally increase their chances by respecting the wishes of the dead.

comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-02-21T03:12:10.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How does this acausally increase their chances?  I still don't get TDT it just seems obvious that the only way this would increase their chances was it if somehow effected someone else through culture or something.

comment by Gurkenglas · 2021-02-21T10:16:05.633Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By CDT, deciding (to respect the wishes of the dead) intervenes on the universe by flipping a switch in your brain. By another decision theory, it intervenes on mindspace by flipping a switch in the neighborhood of your mind, which takes effect in the present, past and future.

comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-02-21T19:37:46.978Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me there was some causal factor that caused the switch to flip to me (maybe it was reading about UDT or something), and I should be seeking to cause that same causal factor in other similar brains.

comment by Gurkenglas · 2021-02-22T10:03:04.150Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed you can use causal pathways like culture to increase the chances of people deontologically deciding to cooperate, or of people using UDT, but the latter is only useful if UDT cooperates. According to UDT, to decide what to do, compare not the possible worlds conditional on "I decide to cooperate/defect", but conditional on "UDT cooperates/defects".

Of course CDT can't be convinced in the moment that deciding to vote for your party changes the expected tallies by any more than one. But even CDT would agree that the CDT party loses against the UDT party, and that it should build UDT rather than CDT into its AI if that AI will be playing Prisoner's Dilemma's against its copies.

comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-02-23T16:46:08.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ahh that makes sense.