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.”