In Defense of Publicly Airing Dirty Laundry

I've done a lot of thinking about gossip vs. public accountability in the past few days, and I really think that pushing issues that would usually be private out of the closet and into clear daylight is a good thing. So long as it's all done out in the open and names are named and any person has the freedom to respond to allegations or opinions in any way that they want, it benefits everyone to have things be more public rather than less.

I'm specifically advocating this with regards to abuse, bullying, rape, harrassment, stalking, etc, but I think it also applies to other arenas. Bad business practices, friendships gone awry, hell, even breakups. I know that the court of public opinion can be ridiculous and (especially on the internet) freely shared information can be freely abused information. I understand why people want to keep some things private. It hurts when we put something out there and then others react with vitriol.

The other side to that, though, is that creepy people then show their stripes. If someone's being abusive, especially on a forum like Fetlife or Facebook where it's not anonymous, they're outed as an abuser. When everybody is talking about something publicly, rather than whispering about it privately, it becomes clear pretty quickly who is being crazy and who is reasonable. It also means there's more information that's readily accessible to everyone, and people can make their own judgments about who they want to befriend or who is safe to be around.

Thomas over at Yes Means Yes writes all the time that the way we're going to stop rapists is by publicly shaming them and removing the social constructs that allow them to continue. Calling people out on rape jokes. Standing behind victims who come forward. Etc.

I think that applies here. If it's impossible to misbehave without having your shit broadcast all over a community you're part of, then people are either going to hesitate before they misbehave or they're going to leave that community. If every community then had a similar public response to bad behavior, any kind of abuser would run out of places to go. Or get stupid, then get caught.

I think that very public discussions of personal issues are actually different than gossip. Gossip allows people to hide things; by its very nature it's a hidden form of communication. Figleaf quoted Dilbert creator and blogger Scott Adams the other day on privacy.
When privacy goes away completely, we'll all be freer. There's only a penalty to privacy when your asshole neighbor can look down his nose at your hobbies while secretly masturbating to Field and Stream magazine. The best two situations for society are when you have either complete privacy or complete non-privacy. It's the middle ground that creates problems. That's where we are now.
What allows that neighbor to be an asshole, alongside the fact that his own kinkiness is a secret, is the fact that he's probably only trash talking you privately, to his friends. If everything was out in the open, how long do you think his superiority would last? Not long at all.


Unknown said...

I'm not sure I fully agree. Churchill said that the worst argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter, and whilst I don't mean to look down my prodigious nose at anyone, there are some things I wouldn't want certain people (including some of my close friends and family) to know. I don't hold it against them - I simply don't TALK about things like polyamory with them because I don't think they'd be able to handle it. This may seem patronizing, but frankly, it's proven to be SAFER for me.

(Parenthetical Note: if you're wondering why I associate with them if they can't handle certain aspects of me, I would answer that they don't have to know everything to provide me with what I want: fellowship, of a sort).

The public confession is also somewhat problematic because our society is such that there are certain crimes that can injure by accusation alone. And whilst I by no means wish to dismiss the seriousness of rape charges, imagine how easy it would be, in our cultural climate, to **** up someone's life just by accusing them of Something Awful? Though legal problems may not necessarily arise, newspaper headlines and scandal are difficult to erase: no matter if an accusation is revealed to be a hoax, there is always a social element that remains unconvinced and may foment trouble.

Now, these problems are really the product of the environment in which we grow up: if people are not raised in an environment that promotes tolerance, open-mindedness, foresight and critical thinking, then they will not learn these things as they grow up -- and they are tough skills to learn.

In addition to all that, invoking the ideas of "private" versus "public" and "trustworthy" versus "untrustworthy" is problematic in and of itself because doing so relies on binaries. To wit: a spectrum, such as the Kinsey Scale, or even a scattergram, lacks nuance because it relies on fixed data points when no such things "really" exist.

This is not to say that reality does not exist; rather, reality is composed of interwoven points of view, and what one person experiences (and their interpretation thereof) can be entirely different than what another person experiences. Reality, including what is "normal" and what is "crazy," is different for different people. For example, in a book called Zed, by Beth McClung, the titular protagonist, an urban feral child, is disgusted by a baby reaching out for something it wants without some kind of payment in hand -- because of the life she has lived, Zed thinks the baby is crazy for doing this. Accordingly, you're exactly ****ing right about the asshole neighbor who dismisses YOUR needs as inferior to his own, when both are equally arbitrary and subjective, the product of nature AND nurture and a whole lot more.

(Additional Parenthetical Note: There is a common ground of verifiable experiences that have been documented via the discipline called "science," but much of life is still subjective, not objective, and science works only with the objective.)

In conclusion: rather than create an environment in which privacy or non-privacy is mandatory, I'd rather engineer an environment in which privacy is less of an issue: a more tolerant, egalitarian, open-minded society capable of critically engaging issues rather than resorting to snap judgments. In the meantime: I seek advice about certain things only from people who are trustworthy, to the extent that I am able to judge such things.

Post Script: I'm aware that I can be somewhat pedantic; please understand that I'm not trying to throw my virtual weight around by using forty-dollar words. Rather, this is just my method of "play:" by using the words and concepts in my mental inventory to make a point, I master them. I assure you, the intent is not academic thuggery!

Unknown said...

I'm super open to being wrong about this, because I'm honestly just starting to think it through myself. Thanks for your feedback, and don't worry, I'm not scared by big words.

I think you're right that there's a huge problem with accusations of Something Awful tainting anyone's reputation. That's the biggest thing I hesitate over, since I have no interest in innocent people being castigated for things they didn't do.

The reason I still stand by what I wrote is that I think if someone who's accused of something can also publicly respond to it with their own story, then it's left to each person who hears both accounts to judge their own involvement with either or neither party.

Reality IS subjective, and what one person sees as a horrible crime another might have no problem with. What one person sees as clear evidence of someone's guilt, another might easily dismiss. If the details of an event, as seen subjectively from all sides, are out in public, then everyone else will have enough information to form their own subjective reality and make their decisions based on it.

We’re not talking about a court trial here, where there are serious physical consequences for being judged guilty. All that will happen if one person judges another person of being guilty of something is that they won’t be friends. The person doing the judging won’t like the person being judged. Woo, not everyone can like everyone. That’s okay.

Where this breaks down is what you brought up: people aren’t content to live in their own realities and leave everyone else’s truth alone. They often aren't satisfied making their own judgments and using them to determine only their own behavior. When a person has decided someone is bad, they want everyone to think that person is bad and often they want bad things to happen to the bad person. This is what you called "a social element that remains unconvinced and may foment trouble."

My response to that is that if the trouble that social element was trying to cause were all in public, then people would be able to see the troublemakers for what they are, too. As I said about the Scott Adams quote, it’s the secrecy of the judgments and the inability to respond to them openly that makes them so devastating and potentially unfair. If it’s all in public, it kind of balances out eventually.

You’re right, though, that the biggest problem with all of this is that it’s very theoretical. It relies on a binary between public and private, which isn’t complex enough. (Like most binaries.) I do think, though, that it gives us some insight on how to address bullies, abusers, rapists, stalkers, troublemakers, town gossips, etc, even in the real world. We need to drag that kind of harmful behavior into the light. It’s so much harder to spread poison in the world if everyone can see you doing it.

Unknown said...

Paradox, you hit it right on the money when you mentioned the importance of speech, of bringing the kinds of issues you are discussing to light, because that is the only way things will ever change.

Unfortunately, because of the kind of person I am, I'm not particularly adept at this kind of speech. I'm so analytical, so systematic, and so busy flying under the radar in this crazy world, that radical speech is something totally outside my normal behavior patterns. Injustice pisses me off, but I do not generally speak up, except in discussion forums like this (in which I'm the loudest voice in the room), unless the situation is right in front of me.

More specifically: if someone is being raped right in front of me, I'll call the cops and take a crowbar to the rapist's head... but I won't drive hundreds of miles to Louisiana to protest deep-water oil drilling. Likewise: I'll talk long and hard about issues of egalitarianism, point by point, in a discussion forum like this, but I'm not creative enough to fabricate a book or an art exhibit that shows us injustice at work.

It occurs to me that the above is, perhaps, a cop-out. I make no excuses: I know many of the problems facing society, none better; but my inner accountant hasn't yet struck a balance between cost (to me) and benefit (to society) of getting myself thrown in jail at a protest that will probably accomplish nothing. Of course, it's egotistical to make such predictions -- and who risks, triumphs. But this does not mean risk recklessly.

Back to the subject: do speak! And do continue to search for the best way to bring this dark subject to light. The more people who listen and, hopefully, think, the greater the probability that, someday, they will come across a situation in which your words (if memorable enough) influence their decision-making. Ultimately, that's all we can hope for.

In closing: is it possible for you to SPEAK about the subjects at hand without the naming of names? On the one hand, the naming of names seems to be the most problematic element of what you propose: the public discussion of Difficult Subjects. On the other hand, it is tempting to say, "It's about damn time we start naming names and holding people accountable." But I'm biologically male and identify comfortably as such; I'm not sure it's my place to judge some of these issues.

Unknown said...

I think the most important part is actually the naming of names and the accountability. I've seen no system that works to create accountability for unacceptable actions (including and especially the the legal system) the way that public discussion and censure works.

I know that's a tough stance, but one of the most important features of my argument is the accused's ability to also publicly respond to the accusations. It's kind of hard to respond to something that's maybe, kind of about you in a vague, innuendo way that people who are in the know will understand. But if it's all upfront, it's more fair to everyone.

I do think that general discussions of all of this are important and need to happen, as you said. I just think that specific accountability needs to be a part of that discussion.

P.S. I've written before about how I feel about rallies and protests. I think it's important that everybody do something to support a cause they care about, but people can contribute in different ways.

On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

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