I have been following (not too closely) the recent debacle involving Donald Sterling, the current owner of the LA Clippers who was allegedly taped uttering some very racist comments to his girlfriend. Any sane and enlightened person should be deeply disturbed by such hateful sentiments. Some readers might remember my earlier post wherein I briefly discussed the fact that my family and I escaped Lebanon in 1975 under the imminent threat of execution (for being Jewish). Few people have been as personally affected by hatred and intolerance as I have, and so I can fully understand how hurtful Sterling’s rant was. That said the point of my post today is not to focus on Sterling’s grotesque racism but on the chilling effect that his downfall has on our sense of privacy.

The right to be able to speak openly and confidentially to another is at times codified legally if not ethically. For example, the contents of professional conversations between physicians, clinical psychologists, and lawyers with their respective patients and clients are privileged. Journalists are bound by ethical guidelines in terms of how they should proceed when taping an interview, as well as how to handle positions that were stated on or off the record. Legal protections also exist when it comes to spousal communications privilege. Imagine what would happen if a married couple were afraid to utter a potentially damning word to one another in the sanctuary of their home. Clearly then we all recognize that there are some contexts in which it is vitally important that people are able to communicate with one another without any fear of being “exposed.”

What about other communiqués in private life? Do we have a right to navigate through our daily lives unencumbered by the threats of having our every thought and action taped and archived? This issue becomes particularly poignant when we recognize that we live in a world replete with two profound threats to our sense of privacy both of which stem from the powers of technology: 1) the ability to capture countless forms of misbehaviors that would have traditionally gone undocumented; 2) the capacity to distribute these behaviors around the globe at the click of a mouse. Case in point: A miscreant could use his/her iPhone to videotape you picking your nose in your car, post it instantaneously on YouTube, and have it receive 1,000,000 hits prior to your even realizing that you are a “viral sensation.”

I suspect that many readers of this article have uttered private comments that would be deeply embarrassing were they to be broadcast on TMZ. What if a husband were to release a taped conversation of his accomplished neurosurgeon wife as she uttered vile anti-semitic comments about some individual? Should she be stripped of her ability to practice surgery? Hey, perhaps one of her current patients is Jewish. What about two female lawyer friends who happen to be professional rivals, who are engaged in a personal chat in which they each utter a few reprehensible homophobic sentiments? Assuming that they each taped the conversation, this might lead to a sprint to the state bar association to see who can be first to get the other sanctioned if not disbarred (if possible). Would this be a good idea? Every private conversation becomes a context where one should watch their every word lest this might come back to haunt them professionally, financially, and cause irreversible reputational damage. So taken to the extreme, such a world would be a totalitarian police state where the crippling existential fear would be imposed by the citizens and not the government.

In a Time article published two days ago, the legendary basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in on the matter as follows:

“Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it.”

In an LA Times article published yesterday, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is quoted as follows:

“In this country, people are allowed to be morons”

 “They’re allowed to be stupid. They’re allowed to think idiotic thoughts ....”

“But regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we’re taking something somebody said in their home and we’re trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that’s not the United States of America. I don’t want to be part of that."

Let us push the dangers of the “racism” police to its Orwellian conclusion. Suppose that in a not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to use a mind-reading machine, the Readtronic 2000, to capture each one of your fleeting thoughts. This would be a world where our most intimate sanctuary, namely our private thoughts and personhood, would no longer be safe from public scrutiny. Would this be a good thing, as it would allow us to identify and punish all bigots and racists? Beware of what you think or what you say: I have my iPhone and my Readtronic 2000 with me and I’ll use them to ruin you!

To those readers who might be tempted to willfully misinterpret my position, let me be clear yet again. Mr. Sterling’s hateful bigotry is shameful and unbecoming of any member of a civilized society. My focus is on the unsavory and frankly eerie manner in which his racist views were garnered, namely via a private conversation. As a final thought, I wonder about the societal ramifications of levying financial punishments to anyone who utters racist views. It can get quite messy rather quickly. I trust then that the "proper governing authorities" would identify all organizations that are in the business of spewing anti-semitic hatred and bankrupt them accordingly? To not do so would be well anti-semitic no?

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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