Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.
Three weeks ago, when I sat my teenage daughters down to deliver the difficult news, I said, “Girls, I have to tell you something upsetting.”
My younger daughter’s face went still, and she took a deep breath. Then she asked the hard question.
“Mommy, are you sick?”
And in that moment, I knew I had to lie — not about being sick (thank goodness, I’m healthy as a horse) but about being okay.
Yes, announcing an imminent mastectomy would have been preferable to explaining what had happened to me.
“No, honey, I’m not sick,” I answered. “No, what I have to tell you isn’t nearly that bad.”
I answered her as her mother, as her protector for life. I wanted her to believe, to know, that public humiliation was not as bad as cancer. I needed her to feel that everything was going to be all right.
But it wasn’t until I began to write this essay, many days later, that I came to believe that what I told her was true. What I had to tell her about myself was not nearly as bad as a cancer diagnosis — and my chances of recovery? One hundred percent.
When a Web site broke the news on April 3 that, instead of posting an Internet link to an article about writing legal briefs, I had inadvertently sent my law school students a link to a porn site, I thought I could never recover. (And if you’re hoping to find out here how that happened, among the many possibilities that have been raised by gleeful commentators, I’m sorry to tell you you’re going to be disappointed.)
Even before the story hit the Web, I was in terrible shape; when I learned a few days earlier what I had done, I was mortified.
As a law professor, I care deeply about students and their educational experience. As an employee, I care about my institution of learning. As a mother, I care about being a role model for my adolescent daughters.
Selfishly, I care about my dignity.
In part, no doubt, that is because I am a member of a profession that values dignity above all; certainly one reason I chose the field was because ethics and principles matter to me. My job is to teach students to project a dignified image — they have to, to engender client confidence — but, more than that, to possess integrity. How can I teach conduct and attitudes I do not myself seem to personify, at least to some?
At first, when I learned what had happened, I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me. Everyone was speculating about whether I watched porn, or used sex toys, or liked kinky sex. Some people were calling for my job and law license.
No doubt, some felt justified in feeling superior to me. They enjoyed the scandal (where is Olivia Pope when you need her?), the thrill of the sexual and salacious, the speculation. The schadenfreude was irresistible. Gossip was natural.
Some people tried to attack the judgment of administrators at the fine university where I am proud to be a tenured member of the faculty (yes, even now, after a short internal investigation found that I had not violated Title IX or Drexel’s sexual harassment and misconduct policy). Sure, the professor is an idiot, these commentators said, but she doesn’t deserve to be investigated. Lighten up, Drexel. In criticizing my institution, these people were dismissing the dignity of the law, giving no consideration to an atmosphere in which the law exists to protect people and an investigation may be necessary.
Still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained.
No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories, broadcast them, waited outside my office to interview my students, called my unpublished cellphone number. And no one questioned the dignity of the intended audience. Tabloid journalists ran with this story because they knew they would get page views. How would they know that? Because they know their readers and viewers — and they know that scandal, sex and shame are irresistible to those who devour their posts.
But what’s really fascinating about this story is not that a law professor inadvertently shared a porn link with her students. What’s newsworthy is that, actually, there was nothing newsworthy about it. What happened was, in the grand scheme, pretty trivial. My students are adults. The link was quickly removed. There was nothing illegal in the video. The post occurred in the same two-month period when the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” grossed almost $570 million worldwide. Yet, because it was porn and I’m a law professor, news organizations spread the story around the world.
Seemingly, private citizens do not have the right to that one simple thing: privacy. In a moment, through no desire of their own, they can become public figures, shamed in headlines for conduct that is unintentional and harmful to no one — except themselves, as the news media exploit them for sport and profit.
Law professors teach budding lawyers that much of the law is the quest to define ambiguous terms, to find their real meaning. Until this month, I never would have considered “dignity” ambiguous. Now, I wonder how I could have missed how open to interpretation that quality is. Is it, I wonder, the degraded person who lacks dignity? Or the person who seeks to degrade her? If a person is portrayed as less than dignified, does that mean she is? Who has the power to decide?
Here’s what I’ve learned: Losing your dignity is not like losing your virginity (and, yes, I understand the loaded nature of those words). You can go back. You can reimagine yourself, and your reputation, and your professional image. You can come to realize that there are worse things than humiliation. There is cancer. There is isolation. And there is the willingness — even the desire — to bring others down to lift yourself up.
See you in class.