On “The Appearance of Impropriety”

Many organizations stress the supposed importance of reducing or eliminating entirely the “appearance of impropriety”.  These policies should be viewed for what they really are:  attempts to reduce transparency, encourage misinformation, and concentrate power.  Shouldn’t the real goal be to reduce or eliminate actual impropriety?  And should an organization that is engaged in actual impropriety not visibly reflect that actual impropriety to the public?  This latter question gets to the heart of the matter.  These “appearance of impropriety” policies are all about manipulating public confidences to maintain power within a small group, to the exclusion of others.  Organizational leaders attempt to control the flow of information.  They only reveal to the outside world selected facts.  Any that tend to portray the organization as corrupt, inept, malicious, etc. are suppressed, as best as possible.  The public is thereby cajoled and misled to form an opinion of the organization, and of individuals within it, that is not based on all available facts, but rather only those that portray the organization in a positive light.  This ideological “filtering” is a form of coercion, albeit one that does not rely directly on the use of physical force.  Robert Lee Hale noted this long ago.  For that matter, so did Leo Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894).  They argued against a very old concept though.  Plato’s endorsement in The Republic (380 BC) of a “noble lie” used by elites to maintain social harmony within a system of their design is one of the earliest recorded examples.  The question of the “appearance of impropriety” comes up extensively when dealing with the lawyers and the judiciary (see the Judge Kopf affair), but also with other governmental branches, businesses, churches, journalistic publications, or any other organization.  These sorts of policies, at worst, protect the social status of the relevant organization–especially the leaders of those organizations–while suppressing actual impropriety involving particular individuals.  Quite hypocritically, many calls for reducing of the appearance of impropriety simultaneously call for increased transparency, without noting that these are contradictory objectives in the end, when viewed from the standpoint of public welfare rather than from a self-interested viewpoint of the organization (and its leaders) involved.  With these ideas in mind, it is actually quite brazen that organizations publish any guidelines seeking to limit the “appearance of impropriety”.  Such rules speak in condescending, anti-democratic tones.  They imply that the public cannot properly assess facts. Nonsense.