Why on earth am I, a minority myself, recommending that we take a deep breath and a step back before further condemning Donald Sterling, this week’s most hated American?
Three reasons: privacy, rewarding bad behavior, and context.
We learned this weekend that Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, allegedly made disgusting and bigoted remarks about African-Americans. At best, they are hair-raising, cringe-inducing, and downright repugnant. You may need a paper bag to puke in while listening.
It is no surprise that the nation is outraged.
But privacy is also an issue of hefty importance. In only a few short years, privacy as we know it has fallen by the wayside. Digital communication (e.g., emails, texts) means most private interactions are ripe for disclosure, even when clearly intended to be confidential and even when both parties represented themselves as respecting that confidence. Privacy journalist and Cato Institute fellow Julian Sanchez tweeted in the midst of the chaos, “Actually tend to think the right response here is; ‘It’s none of your business what I said or why during a private phone call’.”
Sanchez’s take may seem flippant, even callous, but it seems to touch upon a pressing issue all too often ignored: When will we, as a society, start to reclaim, retake, and demand our privacy?
Here’s one way we can start: Thinking twice before giving legs to stories based on the public disclosure of a private communication would certainly be a moral, sensible course. Much in the same way the justice system refuses to consider evidence obtained without a warrant, why should our conscience allow us to indulge a story involving the betrayal of someone’s privacy?
Whether the individual holds loathsome views is irrelevant. There is something unsettling about complicity in breaching a fellow human’s (basic?) right. Were Sterling’s comments appalling? Of course. But they were said in a private communication. Surely that must count for something?
Then there is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. Adding kindling to the Sterling controversy only rewards the immoral actions of a person who leaked a tape to the media, possibly out of revenge or for financial gain, definitely in the midst of a lawsuit involving not only Sterling but his long-suffering wife.
How does this differ from a man posting topless photos online of an ex-girlfriend to spite her, or a spouse submitting private emails to a court in order to get a leg up in a divorce hearing? The doer has engaged in disturbing behavior for which there is often no excuse. It is behavior based on the violation of trust and the immoral disregard of any implied contract or oral representation that said communications were and would remain confidential. Why would we reward this?
Some journalists have now begun to abstain from naming mass shooters in order to deny them the fame they seek. That’s an ethical decision for those journalists, but it is worth considering more broadly. Should we take similar punitive measures by ignoring stories facilitated through the betrayal of privacy? The individual who leaked the tape — believed by many to be Sterling’s girlfriend — disclosed a private communication likely to cause another individual harm or for personal gain. Buying into this story, we are buying into such an individual’s plan and rewarding his or her breach of another’s privacy. Is this something we want to do? If so, at what cost?