Summer went out on an awfully sour note this weekend with the release of a large cache of intimate pictures pilfered from the private files of famous people. The story is simultaneously sordid and trivial, the sort of thing that is guaranteed to do well on a holiday weekend. But in a strange way, it also ties together some of the events of a disturbing summer, crystallizing the callousness and nastiness that has become our response to so many ugly events and that is an excuse not to search for systemic solutions to serious problems or to invest ourselves in the lives of other people.
The theft and release of the photos are callous enough. These periodic violations suggest a sense of extreme entitlement to famous people’s bodies, a contempt for the idea that people in public life have the right to define any zone of privacy and a sense of glee about the possibility of exposing famous individuals as human and vulnerable.
But the response to these sorts of leaks comes with its own sort of cruelty. Rather than casting a jaundiced eye at large corporations that fail to keep their clients’ data safe or railing against the impulse to pry into other people’s intimate lives, we see sentiments such as the one expressed by New York Times technology columnist Nick Bilton. “Put together a list of tips for celebs after latest leaks: 1. Don’t take nude selfies 2. Don’t take nude selfies 3. Don’t take nude selfies,” Bilton tweeted on Monday.
As tech reporter Kashmir Hill pointed out in Forbes, this kind of response is the digital equivalent of abstinence-only sex education, which is divorced from the realities and expectations of contemporary relationships. And it shares a smug moralism with that sort of thinking: Anyone who experiences a bad outcome from bowing to a partner’s request (much less acting for his or her own pleasure) deserves it and ought to be held up as a cautionary lesson for everyone else.
The tendency to destroy people who have already been victimized takes an even uglier form in the attempts to shade the characters of murdered young black men in order to render their deaths somehow justifiable.
After Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, people who wanted to believe that he was a dangerous thug rather than a child circulated a photo that was supposed to be a current shot of Martin. It was actually a picture of the much-older and taller rapper the Game, but the image served its purpose: to suggest that Martin represented a significant threat who warranted a deadly response.
That same odd attempt to suggest that the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last month was the obvious and correct response because of his nature is already underway. Fox News harped on unconfirmed reports that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown, suffered a serious injury in an altercation with Brown before the killing. The Ferguson police department muddied the waters by appearing to suggest that Wilson was pursuing Brown as a suspect in the theft of some cigarillos from a convenience store. The facts that Brown liked hip-hop and sometimes smoked marijuana have been held up as character evidence in the case, rather than as proof that Brown was a fairly average teenager.
Being a large African American person is not actually a crime. Our penal code does not proscribe the death penalty for marijuana possession or for petty theft. And it takes a certain creative expansion of colonial American sexual morality to suggest that people who look at stolen naked photos ought to simultaneously be able to get sexual gratification from those images and shame the subjects of them for having taken or posed for said pictures in the first place. But these realities do not stop many of us from engaging in self-justifying, self-satisfied moral mathematics to shame and defame victims, a move that helps us to accept terrible things that happen rather than confront the organizations and practices responsible for them, be the bad actors cloud storage lockers or a police department in Missouri.
And when we are not blaming victims, we are creating them. My colleague Radley Balko has written a series of posts on what he calls the criminalization of parenthood. This might best be defined as an increasingly visible tendency for citizens to call the police not only when they believe a child is imminent danger, but also when they believe that other parents are not living up to their own standards for how children ought to be raised. (Among the offenses that have merited calls to the police: letting children play by themselves.)
In many of these cases, calling the police appears to be an alternative to being inconvenienced. Rather than waiting by a car where a child has been left in a car seat to make sure their parents come back or asking after a child who is playing alone in a park, involving law enforcement is a way of opting out of what is supposed to be a collective responsibility for and concern with the safety of children. As uncomfortable as these interactions might be for all participants, they are surely preferable to involving the police.
This particular form of opting out can do serious damage to families. As Balko puts it, “It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job.”
These situations are all very different and raise many disparate issues, but a disturbing thread runs through all of them: a sense that we have little in common and less to gain from standing together than in shaming and blaming each other.
This tendency is not exactly new. But just as contemporary technology gives people the capacity to break into others’ private lives and to spread self-justifying theories, it also helps us broadcast an amplified portrait of ourselves. The resulting image is awfully ugly.