Putting all your information out there — and having it turn around and destroy you

Some of you may have been aware of a very ugly situation that started when NewsRealBlog concluded that one of its contributors (not an employee, but a contributor), displayed a truly unhealthy sexual interest in young children.  Although the editors at NewsRealBlog are conservative, they also respect an individual’s right to privacy.  However, if an individual goes public, over and over and over, with bizarre and explicit posts focused obsessively on sex with children, they concluded (rightly) that it would be morally wrong to continue to have any type of association with that person.  Even if that specific individual hasn’t had sex with children, and isn’t even trying to have sex with children, using the internet as a forum to play out those fantasies is an active incitement to pedophilia that cannot be countenanced.

The whole thing should have ended there, as a reasonable decision by a collaborative blog not to publish unpaid writings from a source who, while sound on libertarian principles, proved to be an exceptionally unsavory human being in a way that endangers children.  Things went a little crazy, though, when David Frum, who apparently mentors Alex Knepper (the man at the center of the controversy) decided to stick up for him.  He did so by attacking NewsRealBlog.  The latter struck back with the most dangerous weapon of all:  facts.  [Warning:  Do NOT click the link if children are present.  Do NOT.  It’s truly icky stuff.]

Frum, rather than mumbling something about “Oh, I didn’t know that,” decided to counterattack by calling the NewsReal people witch hunters, cyber stalkers, McCarthyites, etc.  Interestingly, he didn’t deny Knepper’s sordid obsession with sexualizing children.  He just said it was unfair for NewsReal to find out about it.  And you know, if NewsReal had combed through garbage cans and hacked into private email accounts, there would have been a point to this charge, no matter how icky Knepper’s sensibilities are.  Once again, though, NewsReal slapped Frum down with facts.

The pivotal fact for purposes of my post here is that everything NewsReal found was just out there.  Knepper hadn’t made any effort to hide his thoughts on the subject.  He’d posted widely and wildly in a variety of public forums that could be accessed by a simple Google search.  In doing that, the 20 year old Knepper proved typical of his generation.  (By the way, apropos his age, his relative youth is no excuse, no matter what Frum says.  Knepper’s writing makes it clear that he is not a man just out of adolescence who still has his teenage girl friend from high school.  Instead, this is a man who lusts after prepubescent children, as well as young teenagers.)

We’ve all noticed that we are raising a generation that views the internet as its community, just as it views the local playground, the school yard or the neighborhood hangout as community.  The boundaries of privacy that we adults feel do not exist for this up and coming generation.  Knepper had no compunction about putting his sexual fantasies out into the ether.  He was talking to his “cyber friends,” and was unconcerned that the whole world could eavesdrop.

I see the same in my children.  No matter how often I tell them that the internet is a public square, with no privacy, and a permanent memory, they still place information out there that no adult from my era would ever contemplate making public.  Since my kids are still fairly young, they’re not posting things that are terribly embarrassing, and certainly not illegal, but they’re still private.  I’ve concluded that, at least in part, the problem isn’t that my kids don’t understand the internet’s ramifications.  The problem is that they don’t care.  The notion of a zone of individual privacy, a place where only you and a few invited guests can go, is alien to them.

Right now, my husband and I simply remind our children that whatever is out there will remain in perpetuity for colleges and potential employers to examine.  We hope that their self-interest is sufficient to rein them in.

I do wonder, though, if we’re seeing a new era of privacy.  Or perhaps what we’re really seeing is an old era of privacy.  The privacy we enjoy is a modern construct, resulting from affluence and a large population.  We live behind closed doors and our world is made up of strangers who don’t care about us.  In the old days, people lived in small communities, and often shared homes, rooms and even beds.  (In the Middle Ages, a whole family would sleep on one flea-ridden straw mattress, with the sheep and cows arrayed around them for warmth.)  People lived in public then, just as our children are starting to do now.  I guess it’s only strange for those of us trying to bridge the gap as we shift from one paradigm to another.

For an extremely good post summarizing this whole episode, and giving Knepper a chance to defend himself (although I don’t think he succeeds in doing so), please check out John Hawkin’s post at Right Wing News.