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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