We’re entitled to private lives, not secret ones: a follow-up on Brian Presley and Melissa Stetten

One more note on the Brian Presley/Melissa Stetten case that I wrote about yesterday for Jezebel. We’re at over 600 comments so far, and the debate has been heated. (Also, check out this a response post at Good Men Project by my friend Joanna Schroeder; she stipulates that Brian was probably a “cheesedick,” but that Melissa behaved badly as well.)

One thing that keeps coming up in the discussion is the issue of privacy. By livetweeting about Brian’s clumsy come-ons , did Melissa Stetten violate his privacy? Even if he behaved badly — which almost everyone agrees he did — doesn’t he deserve better than to be humiliated so publicly?

This discussion reminds me that it’s helpful to distinguish a private life from a secret life, something I’ve written about before. On an ethical level, we surely have a right to keep some things concealed from public view. Most would assume I have a right to undress in my home without a voyeur snapping photos of me. But of course, when I’m undressing or bathing or making love with my wife, I’m not engaged in anything that is incongruent with how I claim to live my life. We all know everybody poops; almost all of us agree that society is better off allowing everybody to defecate in total privacy.

But privacy is not the same as secrecy. Privacy is about maintaining healthy boundaries; secrecy is about maintaining deceptions. We have a right to choose who sees us (literally and figuratively) naked; we don’t have a right to expect others to collude with us in our dishonesty by keeping quiet about our lies.

When a married man and public figure claims — as Brian Presley does — to be both faithful and sober, society has a right to take him at his word. If his actual behavior contradicts his public representation of himself, he’s living a secret life. While we all do things in private that other people don’t get to see or even know about; we are not entitled to invoke the right to privacy to protect ourselves from having our hypocrisy revealed.

I have a right to shut the door when I’m using the toilet. If someone places a hidden camera in the lavatory to film me, they’ve violated my privacy. But if I — like Brian, a married Christian sober man who has made his commitment to his family clear — start hitting on a woman on an airplane, I’m being secretive and dishonest. I’m living a lie. To the extent that I’m a public figure, that’s newsworthy. And I don’t get to hide my hypocrisy behind a claim of the right to privacy.

Had Melissa Stetten followed Brian Presley into the airplane restroom to film him drinking (or taking off his wedding ring), she would have violated his privacy. She did nothing of the sort. Instead, she provided real-time, moderately snarky, documentation of the ways in which his off-the-record behavior was radically at odds with his public image. That’s called holding someone accountable.

We have the right to retreat from the world. We have a right to be naked — in every sense — without others watching. But we make a mistake if we assume that right extends to asking others to help us conceal behavior that blatantly contradict our public commitments.

UPDATE: A point made on my Facebook page by my friend Alyssa Royse captures another key aspect of this:

“You cannot expect another person to hide their own lives, if they don’t want to, just to protect yours. The moment you do something with another human being, it becomes their story, and they have a right to tell it.”

Precisely.

13 thoughts on “We’re entitled to private lives, not secret ones: a follow-up on Brian Presley and Melissa Stetten

  1. I really agree with you on this, Hugo.

    He made the choice to behave badly and certainly the responsibility is upon HIM for paying the price for that.

    Ultimately, I think the last line of my piece sums up how I feel about it:

    “If, in fact, Brian Presley said and did all the things Stetten says (and I have no reason to doubt her), then he certainly created this situation for himself. But Stetten is no feminist hero for exploiting it.”

  2. Well, she did tweet a picture of him while he was sleeping, not to mention one of a baby who did nothing other than cried too loud.

    http://twitpic.com/8wdtz4
    As well, you are ignoring another party in this drama: Presley’s wife. She does not deserve to be humiliated.

    • Right. She doesn’t deserve to be humiliated.

      So, take that indignation, and put it where it belongs: on Brian’s shoulder’s, not Melissa’s. I mean, exactly where do we draw the line as far as behavior others aren’t allowed to disclose about someone because it might humiliate their spouse? Could he STEAL from her and claim the right to secrecy? Hit her? Raped her?

      His actions are his responsibility, not hers.

      • However, he did nothing so severe. Yet Stetten took it upon herself to air other people’sdirty laundry in public simply because he was boorish. He was hurting his wife more than he was Stetten, and she only compounded that.

  3. I agree with the Facebook update, but not with the general distinction I understand you to be making. If I hide a camera in a public restroom, for instance, and capture footage of an anti-gay crusader making moves on a MOTSS, I do think I’m invading that crusader’s privacy by making that footage public. The only key issue for me is that behavior involving multiple individuals involves multiple individuals: *Regardless* of my public comments on faithfulness and such, if I make sexual advances towards another person, they have every right to comment (even rudely) on those advances in some other channel. If that behavior makes me a hypocrite, then the media will probably find the story that much more interesting, sure, but the crucial element is, when I interact with someone, I’ve made my actions part of their story as well as my own, and they have a right to tell their story at whatever level of discretion or lack thereof they choose.

  4. Right. The notion that all of us should be enlisted in the mission of advancing Brian Presley’s public relations strategy is bizarre. The problem with Schroder’s piece is that it’s entirely about what she imagines Stetten’s motives. I don’t understand a) how she can claim to think she has any insight there, or b) why it matters. She could have imagined herself to be striking a blow for the feminist cause, or just amusing herself, or whatever. I just don’t see why it matters.

  5. Kind of a nasty, arrogant, childish thing for her to do.

    Kind of a nasty, arrogant, childish thing for people to support her on this.

    An urge has to be suppressed to hope that someone does this to Hugo.

    • I’m reasonably certain that Hugo’s view is that if he did this, he’d neither deserve nor expect anyone, let alone the people he did it to, to help him keep his secret.

      Look, I’d be sympathetic to your position if she was spying/eavesdropping on someone else; but this happened to her. If you do something to another person, it becomes their story, too, and they can do with their story as they wish.

      • You could look at it this way: He was throwing off sound waves that bothered her in some way. So she tweeted about it (and also broadcast a picture of him sleeping) as “revenge”.

        Now what would you think of a smirking frat boy sitting next to a woman on a plane – he ignores her, but starts tweeting because her fatness and ugliness annoys him. He doesn’t approve of the light waves she is throwing off. He thinks that’s funny and starts tweeting that off to everyone. Along with a picture of the cow.

        And then all his frat boys back him up on it. If the woman doesn’t like it, lose some weight and put on some makeup.

        I can’t picture the latter going over in a feminist community.

        It boils down to: It’s a nasty thing to do – on both sides. It really is.

  6. Ha ha ha Melissa so tweety funny, sarcastini girly girl cutey, bravey – go girl!!!

    From her blog

    http://www.melissawashere.com/

    “Now this might not seem that annoying until you have to look at them over 100 times and they STILL can’t figure it out. I want to strangle them and yell something about how the Holocaust was a hoax, tear off my dress, and never return. Man, I would love to do that.”

    I tweet too Mel pumpkin

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