Assumptions of Privacy in a Public Life

computer

A modern peeping tom.

Another series of hacked celebrity photos were leaked this week, which were quickly shut down. The general consensus is that stealing private photos violates these individuals’ privacy (though this guy disagrees). It seems wrong to take these intimate, private moments and make them publicly available. But what about those moments that reveal unsavory characteristics about our public figures?

When private moments in the lives’ of Ray Rice and Donald Sterling were leaked, the court of public opinion seemed unconcerned with their privacy. In fact, the content justified the violation. Despite the fact that there was evidence that Sterling had exhibited racist behavior in the past and Ray Rice was charged months before the outcry, their misdeeds went, largely, unpunished until recordings of what were (presumed to be) private moments went public.

Is the violation of privacy justified to shame institutions into action? If so, when does it become an obligation? Should individuals have a say in the public distribution of their images, even if that allows them to repress abhorrent behavior as well as intimate moments that take place with reasonable expectations of privacy?

Technology, and perhaps more accurately the Internet, has played a large role in distributing the content and fueling debate. In the case of the celebrity photo leaks there is clear legal action that can be taken in the few states that have rules against “revenge porn”. The second wave of celebrity nude photos failed to gain momentum because most corners of the Web recognized the legal fuzziness, or perhaps the moral fuzziness, of spreading them and so took action. But, for most of us, once your personal content is public it is hard to get it back.

shame

Shame on who?

These leaks can be more than simply embarrassing.  The leaking of private moments can lead to professional sanctions even in cases where no legal action can be taken. While in some instances of leaking, the mantra “all PR is good PR” may apply, I doubt that Sterling and Rice agree. It may be that some behavior is so unacceptable that the public can not forgive them. But are we angry with the individuals or the organizations they represent?

The fact that both Sterling and Rice are the public faces of their brands will make it more difficult for them to weather the storm. After all, Charlie Sheen and R. Kelley have managed to overcome their consistently bad behavior despite the availability of recorded evidence. It is far easier to ask one organization– the NBA or the NFL– to distance themselves from an unsavory character than to ask the general public to boycott an individual. After all, many public figures are subject to a “morals clause” that allow their contract to be suspended due to behavior that does not conform to standards of morality or cause detriment to the team or brand they represent.

This is not new. In the early 20th century companies and governments implemented social control measures that linked private and professional/public lives. Most famously, Henry Ford increased workers’ pay on the condition that they submit to monitoring by the Ford Sociological Department to ensure they were married, kept a clean house, spoke English, and generally acted as model Americans. Failure to live up to the moral standards set by Ford would lead to a pay cut and eventual termination. While controversial, many workers gladly exchanged privacy for better pay and benefits.

A long list of celebrities have lost endorsements, faced suspension, and lost their careers due to leaks of private information. But should employers be responsible for upholding moral standards? Would you support an employer’s right to sanction employees who engaged in immoral acts, such as domestic abuse or racist/homophobic/etc behavior–regardless of whether or not any legal actions were taken?

Henry Ford

“I would!” -Henry Ford

The line between private and public has always been blurry and perhaps that is for the best. There was a time when domestic and child abuse were considered private matters but we have come to recognize the rights of victims over the right to privacy.

When the leaking of private moments sensationalizes social problems it has the ability to cut both ways. The awareness raised when the celebrity nudes were leaked may strengthen laws against “revenge porn” thereby protecting the privacy rights of countless individuals. However, besides fueling debate, has the selling of the Clippers done anything to end racism, in the NBA or otherwise? Does suspending Rice increase protection to victims of domestic abuse, or even work towards addressing the issue of domestic violence in the NFL or society at large? I am unconvinced but on the other hand it does feel a bit wrong to do nothing.


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2 thoughts on “Assumptions of Privacy in a Public Life

  1. Excellent post! As you point to, I think it is especially important that we consider the role of professional sanctions that result from private activity. Where you’ve asked if employers should be responsible for employee behavior, I would give more emphasis to the question of whether or not organizations have a right to monitor and survey their members. While, as you say, it feels wrong to do nothing in the cases you’ve described, this seems like a slippery slope back to the Fordist model. The potential problem with that model is that it would enforce only a single vision of what it means to live a good life and potentially repress change. And, while the Fordist model might seem like an extreme example that we are unlikely to return to, organizations already do monitor employees a great deal. For an example, consider the recent change to UVa employee health insurance which offered a discount to those who agreed to submit to intensive health screenings (which basically meant a penalty for those that opted out of the screening). While this example might seem far from the issues discussed in your article, it is another area where the boundaries between private information or behavior and publicly scrutinized behavior are being negotiated.

    To read about UVa’s health surveillance, check out this post: http://iasc-culture.org/THR/channels/THR/2013/12/taylorism-and-the-work-of-health/

  2. The health screenings are a good point. It seems that a lot of the incentivized behaviors are lifestyle choices– walk more, eat better, be active. These might make better workers, as Taylorism would argue, or it might just be a ploy to save money on health care costs. It would not be a far slip down the slope to say married men are healthier so they get rewarded and children who are read to are as well so you should follow these parenting tips.

    To bring it back to the public figures, it is hard to imagine a way for the NFL to address domestic abuse and other unwanted behavior without prescribing a model of good behavior, which would clearly value one way of living over others.

    It is interesting to me that the solution to social ills seems to lie with the employers and individuals as opposed to the state or some other public institution. There was more push back against Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign than there has been against corporate health screening, what does that say about America?

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