Hiding in Public

The most thoughtful piece from this weekend’s New York Times was Christy Wampole’s “How to Live without Irony,” which, if you haven’t already, you should read immediately. But she missed something huge. Something that has consequences for all of us, no matter how far from the hipster type we are.

Wampole argues that the Internet has “helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish,” because of how easily it can be disseminated. She missed the fact that it is the online commons itself which created this monster. We live in public, as a 2009 documentary argued. Everything we say or do can be held against us in the court of public opinion, and it will.

Take, for example, the fact that I know about a young woman who posed inappropriately near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Was it disrespectful? Sure. But why have over 20,000 strangers joined a Facebook campaign to get her fired? What is this collective policing? Lindsay Stone isn’t a public figure; her actions don’t directly affect any of us; and I am certain that she has more than learned her lesson. While I have a problem with disrespecting veterans, I have an even bigger problem with this kind of harassment.

We have decided, as a society, that we have the right to judge others and to hold every one of their lifetimes’ actions against them. The nasty spirit behind the bullying that led Vancouver teen Amanda Todd to commit suicide earlier this year is the same one that, come confirmation time, berates Presidential appointees in the media and on the Senate floor.

We have all made mistakes in our lives. The problem now is that there is no forgetting them. A magazine entry that I submitted at age 15, long before I had ever heard of the Internet, now pops up under a Google search for my name. Facebook owns rights to photos that bare my cleavage, show me posing provocatively at college Halloween parties. All of this could and likely will come back to haunt me. As we routinely digitize history, risks that we took in more innocent times are never forgotten. We are surrounded by our own ghosts.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have erected such an elaborate defense against our public selves? Sincerity is dangerous. But so is a society that shuns it. If we can’t put forth a hypothesis and test it, for fear of being wrong and then being humiliated for that, we’ll never learn anything. The risks are enormous. What kind of person, I ask you, will volunteer for public service knowing that everything she has ever done will be held against her?

To live without irony – to express one’s sincere feelings in a world that makes a record of everything – is to be vulnerable in a way previous generations could only imagine. Ms. Stone wasn’t running for Congress, she was posting to her personal Facebook page. Amanda Dunn was barely a teenager when she flashed a webcam. But the world wouldn’t let them forget their mistakes, grow up, or move on.

The only safe ones among us are those who have hidden in public their whole lives – who have stayed in the closet, who have cloaked themselves in impenetrable religiosity, who have perfected a practiced dishonesty. No wonder that kids now say they want to be celebrities when they grow up. “Reality TV star” is perhaps the only profession left where it’s okay to be oneself.

This blog is an experiment, a test of the hypothesis that, in a world that is constantly judging us, the only defense is offense. Rather than let cyberspace tell the world who I am, I’m speaking for myself. I demand the right to change, to grow, to evolve, to learn, to make mistakes, and to be forgiven. I demand that right for myself, and for others. I demand that right for Lindsay Stone. For Susan Rice. For all of us.

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