You have heard the expression “that’s really more than I want to know”?

A Duke University professor is suspended from his duties for having revealed in social media his notion that Black people ought to be more like Asian immigrants. He thinks Asians embrace European first-names because they want to integrate while Blacks deliberately avoid them because they really don’t want to integrate.

A professional computer security expert makes jokes in social media about the gaping holes in airline in-flight entertainment software which he can hack to take over the flight control system in real time from his seat in Coach.  The FBI picked him up during a scheduled stop-over because airline security sees the tweet. Turns out, however, the FBI interviewed him twice months before because he delivered professional remarks on the same subject to a convention of security firms. Apparently they did not believe him at the time.

An orchestra violinist –a passenger on the derailed train in Philadelphia– tweets a bitterly snarky remark addressed to the railroad company about their incompetence and requests their assistance recovering her baggage (her violin). She’s attacked on Facebook by her “friends”.

In the past several months, we have heard a great deal about how social media is levelling the playing field between journalists, activists and law enforcement.  It is said that without social media there would have been no Occupy Movement, no Arab Spring. There would have been no attention paid to Ferguson, to Tamir Rice, or Freddie Gray. There would have been no influx of ISIS recruits from Europe or America.

There also would have been no Jeb Bush saying one thing on national tv followed by a litany of denials and diversions via social media to find his way back to a more politically-tenable answer to an unambiguous question. The same can be said of Chris Christie, Bob Menendez, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan… the list goes on and on.

I have heard it said that people who “live by the Press, die by the Press” which generally means if you once decide to become a public figure, you are all-in, there is no turning back, you surrender any particle of privacy.  Your only real chance of recovering your former obscurity is to be replaced by a juicier scandal, the next flavor of the month, or be carted away to a black-site to rot.

People have public and private personae. I am old-fashioned. I don’t have a serious problem with people who maintain both because I think that is normal. I am not obsessed with detecting the differences nor do I insist the two be wholly consistent.  If people are going to have bad taste and harbor stupid ideas, they ought to be able to contain their their stupid, tasteless persona while offering a bearable, public one to the rest of us.  Some people call that ‘ simple civility’, but sometimes the impulse to ‘share’ is too overwhelming.

Other people have different ideas about this. They point to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. It revolved around whether his public persona of kid-brother amiability allegedly masked his “true” nature and intention to wantonly kill American civilians.  If only we could have seen past his clever facade, imagine the pain and suffering that would have been averted! This is the obsession of Homeland Security. This is the Holy Grail of Total Awareness.  Long before this, and long before Rumsfeld, my wife told me of Japanese author who liked to say “the most important information in life is the information you don’t know.”   But he was joking.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s culpability was established in a court of law and it focused on his actions, not so much his nature; that is to say his public behavior was dangerous, damaging, and lethal. The penalty phase of the trial focused on his nature, and his nature didn’t seem to count for much in the end.

Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson increased the call for police body-cams so there would be more available evidence of “behavior” between suspects and law enforcement. YouTube COPs. Two sides with two social media narratives duking it out before, during and after.  Brown is dead, Wilson left the police and the narratives live-on as YouTube and Twitterverse re-runs.

There are people who have duties in this world which require them to put their personal feelings and notions aside, and to follow the requirements of law, policy or an ethical code. The Duke professor is entitled to his own opinions, but Duke University insists they are not the opinions of the University as a whole, and the professor shall not bring those opinions into their classroom.  Odd for a university, but there it is.  It is not the first nor last time a University muzzles or terminates a professor who professes a point of view in public.  Neither will it be the first time a professor tries to distinguish his classroom persona at a university from his private persona.  I am sure there are a lot of police officers who believe they are in the same paradoxical situation…. and computer security analysts, and injured railroad passengers.

I work in an environment where “company policy” toward the public is clear. Correct behavior is civil and well-defined. Many employees hate it, but do it. They may do it grudgingly and as minimally as possible, but they do it.  They have a public persona and a private persona. Are they duplicitous and/or schizophrenic?  Are they masking deeply rooted anti-social intentions? Are they potential terrorists?  Does what they say on social media have to be congruent with everything they do or say elsewhere in public?  Should prospective employers be evaluating prospective employees by the contents of their Facebook accounts?

Twitter and Facebook hold no attraction for me, so I will stay out of them. If I thought it were important enough to dissolve any distinction between my public and private personae, I’d probably choose Second Life as the platform.  But even there, it would probably become really more than anybody wants to know.

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  • My goodness, what a muddle. I do not facebook, tweet, line (an Asian thing), or any other social media.
    So, could you kindly state your point? I’m old and a bit slow on the uptake; but you lost me on that post.
    As an aside; IMHO, most have slipped their moorings…

    • Yes, muddle. I’m old too. But that is the nature of ruminations–wandering through the weeds. What’s stimulating my thought is the weight we (as a culture) are putting on social media information. That is the muddle to me. The reactions are so varied as to its importance–is it gossip, is it indicative of “truth” about a person’s nature or genuine character, is a platform for mere advertising? It presents of layer of evidence about a person that is hard to evaluate in part (and unlike letters) because a lot of it is visual which has the power to frame everything more emotionally. When news media use cellphone video as a primary source, is that really the same as eyewitness testimony? Or courts of law? People with cellphones roaming around are like ground-based drones. I don’t object to it, but I don’t think we (as a culture) really know how to process all the stuff that is being collected. We’re putting an awful lot of people in jail or up on charges because of it, so people attach a lot of certainty to this information. I am wondering about how we can be so damn sure in a lot of cases. It isn’t just legal concern. My wife and I were discussing the violinist on the train. What the violinist said and how she said it are (in my opinion) not unlike what other injured parties are going to say very soon, both publicly or privately. It’s just that the violinist had inept timing–a ‘decent interval’ had not passed , so she is pilloried for being crass and insensitive. Is that an essential part of her nature and character? Why is this a story that made it to the news (wife heard about it on an NPR station)?

      • Thanks for the reply. Yes, a wander through the weeds. I do that often myself, so, well done.
        As I said, I’m slow on the uptake at times and need to be brought up to speed… 😉

    • Found the muddle thought-provoking and engagingly written. It draws attention to the fact how difficult it is to compartmentalize different areas of life (persona) in a world that greedily wants to profile all your utterances, actions and movements.

      It’s easy to hide in the noise if you have a common name, in my case this wasn’t an option, and so part of the reason I started blogging is that with a high enough Google rank it gives me some control over what somebody gets to see when running a web search on my name. Worked pretty well, and staying off F***book helps to keep my private life to myself..

  • The theory I heard as to why African Americans prefer such unusual names is because it’s a form of rebellion from the slavery days when their masters gave them their names, usually common ones.

    • I have heard a similar thing. Malcom X was the only Black person I ever heard or read arguing for defiant re-naming, and he met with a fair amount of resistance in the Black community then and now. When I was growing up, I had Black friends tell me these names were based on African language traditions within the individual families. I have no way of knowing. I have read unusual names (probably of any kind) act as a deterrent to getting a job in America, and I suspect that is true especially when the folks doing the hiring don’t have similar names. My own Dad was from an immigrant family and he had an immigrant name. He didn’t change it, and he wasn’t insulted if people couldn’t pronounce it and resorted to Anglicising or contracting it into a common nickname. Perhaps it is different for immigrants than for slaves—I just don’t know how influential it really is in the final analysis. And I am not entirely sure that the Duke professor has given it much thought either–he may have been tossing off an impression much as I am doing right now, never intending it to be anything more than that.

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