A Different Take on Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The Need for Privacy, Even for Racist Chants

A few years ago, in 2009, a photo of President Obama apparently checking out a girl’s booty at the G8 summit began circulating the web.  Headlines such as “The Second Stimulus Package” and “Baby Bot Barack” were everywhere.

We had to place context around this snapshot in order to understand it. Before that happened though, the media had jumped on the picture. Credit: http://mashable.com/2009/07/10/obama-checking-out-girl/

The photo was a misleading snippet of reality.  A video – what is nothing more than several millions of photos, or snippets, strung together – surfaced showing that Obama was gesturing to someone as they were preparing to take a group picture.  The extra snippets were needed to patch together a more complete version of what was going on.

In my opinion, we needed the extra minutes, hours, days, years surrounding the racist chant from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.  More importantly, we need to change our privacy laws in order to prevent these instances from triggering society’s borg mentality.

The fallout was inevitable, even preordained: the news shows clamoring for ratings, the talking heads using the occasion to burnish their progressive credentials with caustic condemnations, the coached apologies, and the inevitable punishments.

The punishments were swift.  The house has been shut down – and so the people who worked in that house have lost this source of income.  The fraternity has been suspended – punishing all of the present members of that fraternity, and others who may wish to have joined in the future.  Two members of the fraternity – the ringleaders – have been expelled from the university.  These two students are being treated like convicted criminals, with CNN putting profiles of the students online (very irresponsible I think).  They are young, and will likely recover, but this experience will always be a part of their lives.  What if it was their and their parent’s dream that they attend this specific university?  What about the friendships they had developed?  What about their educations?

The young men in that fraternity were doing something odious, to be sure.  But to me, it was a bunch of young men having fun on a bus.  The chant was not directed at anyone.  No one was physically or emotionally hurt. Until the sentiments expressed in these chants translate into actual racial bias or discrimination, or until those chants are directed at an actual person, in my opinion the incident should be passed off as frat boys acting stupidly.

But my concern is bigger than this.  Taking videos of people in spaces surreptitiously, where those recorded do not know or expect their actions to be recorded should be against the law.  It follows that placing such material on social media should also be a punishable offense.  The punishments here should not be levied against the fraternity, or the two ring leaders, but the person who took the video and placed it online.

We need to recalibrate our views on privacy in the Digital Age.  Currently, there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.  This understanding is anachronistic – developed during a time when every action could not be recorded and transmitted everywhere.  This anachronistic understanding led to a judge in Oregon arguing that “upskirting”, or taking pictures of up a woman’s skirt, in Target, was not illegal.   I think women expect privacy there – even if they are in a store with a bullseye as a logo.  But our understanding of privacy was built in an era before smartphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous.

As a society, we are poisoned by this decontextualized data pulled from private moments and plastered onto public platforms like YouTube or Instagram.  There are few winners here.  The public, already strained by so many media choices, have one more fatuous distraction grasping for their attention (income inequality grows…oh wait, here is [place person here] caught on video calling someone a fag!).  The victims of these digital drive-bys have their lives ruined.  And most insidiously, the very important task of combating racial discrimination and racial inequality is reduced to rooting out individuals who make racist remarks off the cuff or in places they thought were private.

I have a prediction.  A sad one.

Incidents like these will continue, and our society will suffer for it, until a martyr comes along.  Someone who is well-known enough, or photogenic enough must fall victim.  The progression is all laid out.  A decontextualized piece of their private life is put into the public domain.  She then tries to defend herself, explain, and apologize.  But the public outcry becomes too great, and harsh sanctions are levied.  She may end her life over the scandal.  Or, someone feeding off the media frenzy may decide to take her life.  At which time public sentiment will change, and people will begin to have sympathy.  In the public conversation that follows, we will come to see the little snippet of deviance splattered on Instagram as not representative of the person as a whole.  This new conversation will recontextualize the snippet, and she will be seen as a complex individual just like me and you – a little naughty sometimes, but generally good, productive, God-fearing, and law abiding.  I can even see some congressman sponsoring a public-privacy law named after her.

Only then, after some unfortunate person pays the ultimate sacrifice, will society work to change privacy laws.

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