Thursday, October 10, 2013

Private Eyes, Public Lies

A Texas high school teacher was discovered to have had nude photos of her taken while she was in college. Some parents are calling for her to be fired. Students, by contrast, are reallying to save her job (via). At the Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon asks if we're entering a new era where having some old naked photos crop up isn't a big deal. Naked selfies are becoming so common, he argues, that people will soon no longer be able to muster up any outrage about them.

This is something I've thought of a lot -- less from the naked selfie perspective than from the more general fact that far more of our lives (and particularly our young lives) are documented for posterity than ever before. As a society, we are forgetting how to forget -- everything you do is part of your permanent profile. Young people are constantly warned that those Facebook pictures of themselves at the kegger in high school could have serious consequences when they try to apply for jobs. Old transgressions can come back to shame people years later with a few well-placed google searches.

And that may be true, in the short-term. But in the long-term, I suspect it's more likely that we will systematically recalibrate our expectations. The shock value of a picture showing a guy passed out on the couch surrounded by PBR cans is dramatically diminished when the HR director has the same photos floating around. If everyone has embarrassing photos, dumb teen angsty poetry, and nude self-portraits scattered throughout the internet, then nobody does.

This has more profound consequences than I think are typically acknowledged. We talk about the dangers of the internet's limitless memory as if I current conceptions of shame, guilt, condemnation, and even personal continuity will survive intact. But it's at least as likely that the fact that a documented past is now the norm rather than the exception will cause significant alterations to all of these things. The regulation of underage drinking, for example, occurs now even though it is exceptionally likely that virtually every state and federal politician drank while underage. We know that, but we don't know that, and if a picture surfaced of Congressman John Doe drunk while in college would still be news. It's a different thing when the existence of these photos is commonplace and mainstream -- it prevents us from even maintaining the facade to shield ourselves from charges of hypocrisy -- or so I think.

The result, I hope, is a more forgiving society. If everyone's dirty laundry is out there for the rest to see, there's no sense preserving its status as reputation-annihilating. Reputation is a collective action problem, and the share-everything mentality of the internet helps resolve it. Or so I think.


EW said...

I’ve pondered the same thing ever since reading No Exit in high school French class.

The book depicts a few people trapped in an environment in which all their secrets are gradually exposed. And, ok, the characters are a pretty nasty bunch. There’s the suggestion that they are in hell – that is, they will forever be tormented by having their secrets exposed to people they cannot escape from. And sure, each of them is mortified at the moment his or her secrets are revealed. But thereafter? Eventually it would all become old news, wouldn’t it? Is it reasonable to expect that people would remain scandalized forever?

Then, as Lawrence v. Texas was winding its way through the courts, many people remarked on the hypocrisy of punishing the defendants for the oh-so-common practices of oral and anal sex. We pondered organizing a civil obedience day: On a designated day and time, everyone would surrender him- or herself to the police, wearing a button saying, “I’m a Sodomite!” A simple acknowledgement of the truth would crash the system.

Social transgressions are like deaths: One of them is shocking. A thousand of them is a statistic.

PG said...

I'm not sure your underage drinking idea works, given that the last few presidents have acknowledged (Clinton, Obama) or had good evidence of (Bush II) drug use -- yet the drug war continues unabated.

Amber Taylor made a similar argument years ago, that instead of getting anxious about privacy, we should just go with it and hurry the day that none of this stuff is life-destroying anymore. I think this underestimates the human capacities for both shame and hypocrisy.

Consider divorce, which now is something that's no longer damaging in political or business careers. Reagan broke the barrier in presidential politics. Although so far he's been our only divorced president, the fact of a divorce in itself hasn't been held against other candidates like Dole or McCain. But people also aren't really ashamed of getting divorced anymore. It's even framed as the *right* thing to do, especially if a couple don't have children: why make yourselves miserable for the sake of keeping a promise? It's something a parent might urge his own child to do: "you're so unhappy, you should get divorced."

In contrast, I think our society will have to change significantly for naked selfies and underage drinking to be advocated by parents as actually the right thing to do. They're commonplace, but they're still seen as reasons for embarrassment or shame (especially the naked selfies). So long as, like drug use, they have that "lots of us do it, but we really shouldn't" status, they still have the power to make strangers judge our moral character negatively.

EW said...

If during a campaign in comes out that a candidate engaged in a traditional and harmless, yet illegal, prank in school (stealing the other team’s mascot, painting the statue of the school’s namesake red before the homecoming game, whatever), I don’t this would impair the candidate’s chances.

Or consider the election of 1940: A Democratic newspaper ridiculed Harrison, the rival candidate, as an old backwards hillbilly: "Give him a barrel of hard cider, and ... a pension of two thousand [dollars] a year ... and ... he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin." Rather than outright refuting the allegation, Harrison’s camp proudly declared their man the "the log cabin and hard cider candidate," while depicting their rival Van Buren as out-of-touch with the common man, even with the common man’s vices. (Ironically, Harrison came from a wealthy, prominent family while Van Buren came from a poor, working-class family.)

Or consider the variety of presidential “gaffs” at the microphone, such as G.H.W. Bush’s statement that he would “kick a little ass.” Doubtless some people were scandalized. But I suspect more were invigorated by a display of authenticity to which they could relate.

In each of these examples, a person swaps some of his “saintly” persona to enhance his “just regular guy” persona.

EW said...

On the other hand….

What do people who conduct hiring care about? Yes, if they’re the boss, they care about getting the best candidate. But if they’re NOT the boss, they may well care about doing what is expected of them, whether or not it results in the best candidate being hired. (This would be especially true if the hirer has a modest appraisal of his own ability to distinguish among candidates.)

Under these circumstances, hiring is a no-win situation for the hirer. People won’t praise him for picking good employees; after all, given what was written on the employee’s resume, the choice was obvious, wasn’t it? But they’ll blame the hirer if an employee is a dud, or worse. So that’s the scenario the hirer has to focus on. And under that scenario, the hirer doesn’t want to have to answer the question, “HOW COULD YOU HIRE THIS GUY? Didn’t you see those photos on the web?” The hirer want to be able to say, “Yeah, that employee was a dud (or worse), but how was I to know? He had all the traditional things you look for in a candidate, and none of the traditional things you try to avoid.”

In other words, the hirer may not be prejudiced against people with indiscrete photos on the web – but he can’t count on the fact that his current (or future) boss won’t harbor those prejudices. That’s traditional CYA behavior. Thus, hiring in large organizations tends to be more conservative than hiring in other settings.

PG said...

Wouldn't a majority of the electorate in 1840 be composed of people who might be called "hillbillies," since only about 10% of Americans lived in urban areas? Probably a misfire on Democrats' part. I don't think Harrison was swapping saintliness for "just a regular guy," but rather was emphasizing that he could relate to regular people who were still suffering from the Panic of 1837, whereas Van Buren was out of touch with them.

George HW Bush made the "kicked a little ass" remark after a VP debate in 1984; I think it was a pretty unimportant moment in the campaign except inasmuch as some people might have thought it particularly a bit inappropriate to say after debating the first female VP candidate. And as with Harrison, it wasn't about trading away saintliness -- there are no saints directing the CIA.