So there has been another leak of private data. Potentially damaging information, the sort that ruins careers or even lives. As always, in such situations, we have basically three options before us:
- Shamelessly expose private behavior in order target people for reputational harm.
- Expose private behavior in order target people for reputational harm, but use a fig leaf like “hypocrisy” in order to justify our actions.
- Let people live their private lives without singling them out for public shaming.
The first approach was recently taken by the folks at RH Reality Check who publicly slut-shamed an anti-choice activist in an in-depth personalized hit piece featuring user data gleaned from two dating websites. The second approach may be exemplified by the writers and editors at Addicting Info and (of course) Gawker, who evidently believe that it is okay to publicly shame someone using feloniously obtained data, just so long as it relates to what they can righteously denounce as “disgusting hypocrisy.” The last and least harmful approach cannot be pointed out, naturally, since it entails holding back information instead of going public.
My feeling is that the third path is nearly always the best, because the other two will help to normalize an increasingly intrusive and personally destructive approach to waging culture wars. As an atheist activist, my allies are in particular danger in such a scenario, assuming that unbelievers tend to have spicier sex lives and more unconventional arrangements than those who are constrained by religious dogma about sex.
The second path is particularly seductive, because it allows one to preserve the illusion that privacy remains prized, while carving out specific exceptions for those whom one would most like to expose and destroy. I foresee that the exceptions will eventually swallow the rule, for those who choose to tread this dark path. The motivation to attack one’s political opponents is too strong, apparent loopholes will be endlessly multiplied as each new target appears.
The general norm against invasions of privacy protects everyone alike. We tear down that wall at our own peril.