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Friday Nugget Blogging

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“If you were going to do suicide by jumping, wouldn’t you rather land on concrete than water?”

I believe my son is genuinely puzzled when he hears of people jumping off bridges. But what disturbs me is that he seems less puzzled by the concept of suicide itself. Perhaps that’s because he hears so often about young people – often kids not much older than him – killing themselves. As Brian Moylan documents, Tyler Clementi is only the latest in a recent rash of suicides by young gays for whom psychological and physical torture and intimidation are a fact of daily life. But the phenomena of being bullied to death is not limited to gay-bashing. Last year the town down the road from us, Hadley Massachusetts, was on the national map for the death of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself after being tormented by classmates to the breaking point. Another case occurred around the same time in Springfield.

In the wake of those events, the Massachusetts school system has implemented new anti-bullying measures. But as the school year kicks into gear, it’s hard to know precisely how they are going to be enforced. Already stories are trickling home to me from my daughter about racist and sexist speech going unchallenged in the company of teachers and administrators. But one of the biggest sources of angst and psychological torment I hear about from my daughter is not name-calling or slurs but rather the acquisition and exposure of one’s secrets by others, especially those you trusted as friends. Whether it’s betrayal by an annoyed confidant, passing along of private emails or text messages to others, or the construction of nasty rumors about one’s private life by rivals, efforts to sully others’ reputations by acquiring and sharing private information seems to be endemic.

And it’s not just among kids. We have entire industries now that specialize in mining individuals’ digital footprints for “incriminating” information about completely legal acts that hurt no one in individuals’ private lives that might nonetheless prove useful ammunition in public venues. I’ve never been sure quite why we find this acceptable even for our public officials, but now such information is routinely – and legally – gathered on ordinary citizens by other private individuals (like spouses and the private investigators they employ) as well. Apparently, there’s no law against it: in fact precedent is beginning to move in the opposite direction.

Then we have the despicable James O’Keefe, who not only planned but bragged about an attempt to seduce CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau on camera for the express purpose of publicizing the video and ridiculing her. SEK has already pointed out that to succeed in his plan would have bordered on committing assault, but assuming he was able to actually lure her onto the boat and secure a consensual interlude of some sort, I am unaware of any civil statute under which his intent – to trick and publicly ridicule her – would be judiciable. In our culture that just falls into the category of “prank.” And while everyone thinks he’s a jerk, no one’s talking about holding him legally culpable. Maybe if he had succeeded and then she killed herself in humiliation our attitude would be different.

I am beginning to think there is something terribly wrong with this. In my “Human Security” class last week we discussed human rights, and how the traditional understanding was that they were standards that bind states, whereas individuals couldn’t be prosecuted for violating other individuals’ rights (except in the cases of crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction). States would have to pass laws to bind individuals; and conventionally in this country, most human rights laws have been about keeping the state out of people’s lives, rather than using the state to impose just standards of conduct among people. But as Alison Brysk documents in her book Human Rights and Private Wrongs, this has begun shifting in the past decade: governments are increasingly aware that human rights mean little (particularly to women and children) if the wrongs meted out in private – when people beat their partners or parents abuse their children – are beyond the reach of human rights law.

Perhaps the right to privacy needs to be rethought along these lines as well. I’m not sure that all of these examples – the successful taping of an actual private act with others resulting in a death, the attempted staging of a private act that involves the perpetrator and in which the victim is a public figure, the collection of private information through technologies that render that information quasi-public – are equivalent. But to me they all seem to fall into the category of using information the victim thinks is private to publicly humiliate the victim, carried out by private citizens. Our constitution guards citizens against the intrusion of the state into their homes and private lives; if the state gathers information illicitly it cannot be used in a court of law to sully an individuals’ reputation. It is not much of a stretch to apply the same standard to relations between individuals; we need a nation-wide debate about what the parameters of those rules should be.

So I am delighted to see Clementi’s tormentors charged with the crime of “invasion of privacy” and hope the court case will receive nationwide attention and support, though I predict it will be controversial. And although the prosecutor is also considering adding “bias” charges, I hope those won’t overshadow the broader issue of invasion of privacy, which can happen to anyone who is disliked by someone with a camera or a twitter account and a hard heart.

I would be happy if my daughter were taught early on that it is not only wrong, but is actually a crime, to obtain private information about others’ behaviors that cause no one else any harm and then publicize that behavior for the purpose of hurting that individual – whether or not that hurt has anything to do with the victim’s race, gender or sexual orientation. I would be happy if, should this happen to her for whatever reason, she felt empowered to sue her tormentor at the very least for financial redress. I would be happy if administrators, courts, and peer groups would come down on the side of the victim unequivocally in even the most minor of such cases – on principle. I think only if we re-establish a norm that privacy and dignity matters and is to be protected and respected – and begin embodying this in our behavior and teaching it to our children – will we be able to turn this around.

It’s a step in the right direction to condemn James O’Keefe and support the prosecution of those individuals who literally ruined Tyler Clementi‘s life. I hope these proceedings are closely documented and used as teaching moments in our public schools, colleges and homes and workplaces. And then maybe, by the time my son is in high-school or college he’ll be less likely to ever have cause to stand on a bridge and wonder.

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