September 2, 2014

Nude photos, dead teenagers and our intolerable cruelties to each other

Callousness and nastiness toward people who have been victimized have become our responses to so many ugly events – excusing us from searching for systemic solutions or investing ourselves in the lives of other people.

Summer went out on an awfully sour note this weekend with the release of a large cache of intimate pictures pilfered from the private files of famous people. The story is simultaneously sordid and trivial, the sort of thing that is guaranteed to do well on a holiday weekend.

But in a strange way, it also ties together some of the events of a disturbing summer, crystallizing the callousness and nastiness that has become our response to so many ugly events and that is an excuse not to search for systemic solutions or to invest ourselves in the lives of other people.

Images of actress Jennifer Lawrence, who stars in “The Hunger Games” film franchise, began appearing online on Sunday. Naked images purporting to be of other female stars were also posted, although the authenticity could not be confirmed. The source of the leak was unclear.

The theft and release of the photos are callous enough. These periodic violations suggest a sense of entitlement to famous people’s bodies, a contempt for the idea that people in public life have the right to define any zone of privacy and a sense of glee about the possibility of exposing famous individuals as human and vulnerable.

But the response to these leaks comes with its own cruelty. Rather than casting a jaundiced eye at corporations that fail to keep their clients’ data safe or railing against the impulse to pry into other people’s lives, we see sentiments such as the one expressed by New York Times technology columnist Nick Bilton.

“Put together a list of tips for celebs after latest leaks: 1. Don’t take nude selfies 2. Don’t take nude selfies 3. Don’t take nude selfies,” Bilton tweeted on Monday.

As tech reporter Kashmir Hill pointed out in Forbes, this kind of response is the equivalent of abstinence-only sex education, which is divorced from the realities and expectations of contemporary relationships.

And it shares a smug moralism with that sort of thinking: Anyone who experiences a bad outcome from bowing to a partner’s request (much less acting for his or her own pleasure) deserves it and ought to be held up as a lesson for everyone else.

The tendency to destroy people who have been victimized takes an even uglier form in the attempts to shade the characters of murdered young black men in order to render their deaths somehow justifiable.

After Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, people who wanted to believe that he was a dangerous thug rather than a child circulated a photo that was supposed to be of Martin, but was not.

That same odd attempt to suggest that the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last month was the correct response because of his nature is already underway.

Being a large African-American person is not a crime. And it takes a certain creative expansion of colonial American sexual morality to suggest that people who look at stolen naked photos ought to be able to get sexual gratification from those images and shame the subjects of them for having taken or posed in the first place. This helps us to accept terrible things rather than confront the organizations and practices responsible for them.

These situations are all different and raise many issues, but a disturbing thread runs through all of them: a sense that we have little in common and less to gain from standing together than in shaming and blaming each other.

This tendency is not new. But just as contemporary technology gives people the capacity to break into others’ private lives and to spread self-justifying theories, it also helps us broadcast an amplified portrait of ourselves. The resulting image is awfully ugly.

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