“Character is what you do when you think that no one is looking.”
But here’s an interesting question: What happens to character when someone is always looking? How is the concept of character altered in a 24/7/365 world in which more and more of our lives are conducted in public and the sphere of privacy shrinks to the point that it threatens to implode upon itself like a black star?
We live in a world in which knowledge about what we buy, eat, drink, read, wear and watch is now bought and sold freely by corporate America. We are tracked in the virtual world as we travel from website to website; we are tracked in the actual world by the unblinking eye of video cameras recording us from the highway to the parking lot to the store to the bank to the restaurant and back home again.
If we rent a hotel room, board an airplane, make a cellphone call or fill our gas tank, someone somewhere knows it and records it.
And increasingly, such exposure is active rather than passive. It is something that we as a culture now seek. Millions broadcast the intricacies of our lives via Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media, and every utterance and act of our political leaders, sports figures and entertainers become fodder for gossip, exaggeration and distortion.
Everybody is watching everybody. Big Brother is here, and We are Him. And even those who personally resist such trends must acknowledge the cultural futility of their protest.
Consider, for example, the ongoing scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents in Colombia. A dispute with a prostitute over payment in a hotel room in far-off Cartagena becomes international knowledge in a matter of hours. They thought no one was looking, but in reality everyone was looking.
But here’s a little sidebar that I find even more telling:
It turns out that one of the Secret Service supervisors fired in the Colombia scandal had been assigned to protect Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. On his Facebook page, David Chaney had posted photographs of himself eying Palin behind his sunglasses, bragging that “I was really checking her out, if you know what I mean.”
Palin has expressed outrage at the posting, and she has every right to feel that way. In a profession in which discretion would seem to be a primary virtue, Chaney thought that because everyone is looking, no one would be looking. And here’s the thing: Up to the moment that he got caught in that hooker scandal, he was right. Those photos had been posted more than three years ago, and nobody took notice. It’s as if being transparent means being invisible.
So … what happens to character in such a world? At first blush, it might seem logical that as more of our lives become open to inspection, and as the odds rise that any misbehavior on our part will become public, social pressure and concern for reputation would force people to live more cautiously and abide by social norms.
That’s certainly how George Orwell thought it would work out. In “1984,” his version of the ever-watchful Big Brother enforced a repressive, sterile conformity on everybody within his purview.
But that’s not how things are working out in reality. With the full range of human frailty increasingly on parade, who cares? When all are shamed, none is shamed. Exposure becomes something to be sought rather than something to be avoided, and for good or bad, the result is a liberation from rather than reinforcement of social codes and morality.
And character? Character becomes what you do when everyone is looking and no one cares.
– Jay Bookman