God bless us, everyone, and God bless Tiny Tim. Not the one from A Christmas Carol, but Timothy Egan, who writes for The New York Times. Today’s column is called “Video Nation,” and his thesis is that Americans don’t bother to care unless there’s a video that we can all get outraged about. ISIS was committing any number of animalistic atrocities before they beheaded two American journalists…but only after millions saw those videos did Obama double down on Iraq War 3.0. The NFL has had all sorts of issues with domestic abusers, but only after TMZ released its video of Ray Rice striking his fiancé (which the NFL had presumably already seen; certainly Rice had admitted his behavior months ago) did the league even start to try to do the right thing. Cliven Bundy, deadbeat ranch squatter, was a hero to America’s most popular news service…until someone released a video where Bundy explained how blacks were better off during slavery. And on and on.
Egan is 100% right, but he’s also missing at least 50% of the story. From reading him, one might think that viral videos are the new religion – the thing that keeps everyone in line, the yardstick by which we measure our ethics time and again. But the truth is more complicated than that, and those complications should keep anyone from being too smug about the power of YouTube. The truth is that transparency is our new religion, and before its clergy and temples overrun America, we should probably step back and remind ourselves what we’re signing up for. To put it in 13 words, we’re signing up for Anonymous’s slogan: “We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” Is that what we really want?
There’s a great, recent New Yorker article called “The Masked Avengers” – and here they’re just following where Wired has been forever – about the rise of Anonymous and 4chan and various other networks of “hacktivism” and lulz-trolling and Edward Snowden-supporting and the like. In the article, password-breaking activists are given partial credit for all kinds of social revolutions from Tunisia to Ferguson. But David Kushner’s article is also clear that “doxing” – making public certain private details about people – can be as harmful as it is helpful. Kushner manages to express a nuanced view that doesn’t seem to get through to most of his fellow journalists.
The article doesn’t mention it, but the recent “Fappening” – the large online dump of nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton – is part and parcel of the same thing. There’s something weird about America’s news anchors and morning talk-show hosts getting all huffy about Lawrence’s privacy one week, and then getting all huffy about a Ray Rice video the next week. They don’t even seem to sense the potential hypocrisy, which is, right there, a big part of the problem. Yes, we Americans just go from thing to thing, from ice bucket challenge to Ferguson to girl with an Uzi to Fappening to Ray Rice, but well-compensated media professionals should be able to provide a little more context and a little more consistency, or aren’t they just us with better stylists? (This is part of what Jon Stewart satirizes every time he shows someone on CNN saying “uh…okay…well…we still don’t know…no change here…back to you.”) In a way, the media descending to the same analytical level as the people in their twitter feed is sort of a populist victory, but in another way, you’d like to think one or two of them read books every so often. If they did, perhaps we might get outraged about domestic violence WITHOUT a video to remind us, and other NFL players would be suspended, the ones without brutal viral videos.
You see, it’s mildly hypocritical to wait for videos to get incensed about domestic violence and ISIS, and then turn around and get angry when lolcats release nude photos or the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. At that point, you’re handing the consistency baton over to the Edward Snowden supporters, who seem to want every single thing on God’s green earth to be made public. In fact, all this Ray Rice stuff is encouraging the “masked avengers” to try to play “gotcha” with anyone and everyone else, to make money from TMZ. And maybe we should go the way of total transparency, but it would be nice if the major media facilitated a more self-aware public discussion about it. Are people willing to trade everyone’s personal nudes and password information for more awareness of certain issues? Do we all just know where the common-sense boundaries are? If that’s true, and if Glenn Greenwald is telling the truth when he says that we’ve only heard a fraction of Snowden’s revelations and many more are to come, can we throw together a public list as part of a letter to Greenwald about what’s acceptable for public consumption and what isn’t? Or is it really true that we want everything to be public now? I’d be open to that…if I thought that’s what America really wanted.
However, I suspect that more Americans agree with Bill Maher, at least about this point:
Last week, when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, “when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.” But Sterling didn’t advertise. He was bugged…Even at home, we have to talk like a White House press spokesman? … I would listen to a hundred horrific Cliven Bundy rants if that was the price of living in the world where I could also hear interesting and funny people talk without a filter…So let me get this straight: We should concede that there’s no such thing anymore as a private conversation, so therefore remember to ‘lawyer’ everything you say before you say it, and hey, speaking your mind is overrated anyway, so you won’t miss it. Well, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it a lot … Does anyone really want there to be no place where we can let our hair down and not worry if the bad angel in our head occasionally grabs the mic? … Who wants to live in a world where the only privacy you have is inside your head? That’s what life in East Germany was like. That’s why we fought the Cold War, remember? So we’d never have to live in some awful limbo where you never knew who — even among your friends — was an informer. And now we’re doing it to ourselves. Well, don’t … If I want to sit in the privacy of my living room and say, ‘I think the Little Mermaid is hot and I want to bang her, or I don’t like watching two men kiss, or I think tattoos look terrible on black people, I should be able to. Even if you think that makes me an a–hole. Now, do I really believe those things? I’m not telling you, ’cause you’re not in my living room.”
We need an ethics of transparency. We don’t have one because we’re lurching from thing to thing. We need to take a step back and decide. I suspect that when it comes to metaphors about transparency, sometimes your friend on the couch is right; sometimes, better door than a window.