A Web That Can Entangle And Expose Us All

In the wake of the Petraeus scandal, Melik Kaylan sounds the alarm over the loss of privacy in the Internet age:

It’s no good arguing that the famous or powerful have signed on to such risks, that they are crucially different from us. With the advent of the Internet, anybody can shame anybody, and the stain can endure through generations across continents. Nor is there real comfort in the notion that digital media promotes the exposure of genuinely egregious offenders such as the Jerry Sanduskys and Jimmy Saviles. A precisely appropriate forum exists for such cases: the criminal justice system. And there are reasons why it has checks and balances—to protect the innocent while calibrating punishment for degrees of guilt.

Today’s scandals do no such thing. Instead, they unleash ancient mythological furies with the power of modern technology. Suddenly, we are back in the archaic time of fear, where anyone who rises too high can get arbitrarily destroyed by the Gods, where there’s no distinction between guilty and innocent, merely between the lucky and unlucky…

I have lived this – being humiliated and falsely accused of hypocrisy by the gay far left because I once tried (and failed) to find other HIV-positive guys to have sex with online when I was single. Since that searing experience – I was a pioneer target in Internet shaming and exposure – I've seen countless others go through the same thing, sometimes for reason, more often for no reason at all.

This is a huge loss that accompanies the huge gain of the Internet. Non-saints all need some zone of privacy if they are to remain sane. And yet no one can really avoid the tools of email and texting and tweeting and Tumblring and Instagramming if they want to be part of society – and any single image or text or email can be instantly communicated to everyone on the planet by almost anyone. Anthony Weiner will therefore always live with the image of his fruit-of-the-loom chubby as if it were stamped to his forehead like a Scarlet Letter of old. Yes, there are great advantages to transparency – we would never have grasped the full extent of the torture under Bush and Cheney if some hadn't taken digital photos of the Cheney-authorized techniques in use at Abu Ghraib. But there is also great human cost.

The only way past this, alas, is through it. The more poor souls this humiliation happens to, the more used we become to the humiliation, the less potent it becomes. In the end, it will likely happen to everyone in public life at some point in their lives, ranging from minor embarrassment – a photo of your love-handles on a beach – to a major scandal whose graphic texts every page-view-grabbing website will broadcast with relish.

Maybe some of our hypocrisies will wither away in this paralyzing sunlight. Maybe we will live less embarrassing lives. Or, more likely, we will build up personal and social scar tissue to live as actual flawed creatures in a terrifyingly transparent world.