We live in an era where a combination of social media and smartphones allows us to record the most detailed minutia of our everyday lives. Because of this, the walls between the concepts of “private” and “public” have started to crumble, causing widespread hand-wringing in the media over the dangers of sexting, selfies, and even domestic photography. But while there are some real problems with the way digital technology is drawing the parts of life that used to be more private out into the sunlight, there’s also a major upside that shouldn’t be overlooked. In the past, it was all to easy for people with wealth and power to behave in bigoted, even violent ways in private without much fear of being held accountable in public for it. Now, with the spread of digital technology threatening to expose their private life, it’s becoming harder for the rich and powerful to hide behind a well-oiled PR machine while acting like monsters in private.
In the past week, two very rich and well-connected men—Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, and Gurbaksh Chahal, the CEO of RadiumOne—are finally feeling the heat for their “private” behavior because of digital technology. Sterling’s racism has been something people have known about on some level for years, but an audio recording—one almost surely captured by a smartphone—of him berating his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, for daring to appear in public with black people, was leaked to TMZ and immediately spread like wildfire.
It’s one thing to know abstractly that someone has been accused and found guilty of racial discrimination, but the visceral impact both of Sterling’s ugly opinions and the vicious tone he takes with Stiviano clearly resonated with the public. Starling’s team, the Clippers, protested in a playoff game by wearing their jerseys inside out during warm-up and leaving them on the floor. Now people from all corners of the sports world are calling for Starling to lose his team ownership.
Interestingly, the fight that the anonymous tipster recorded between Sterling and Stiviano was also over Sterling’s desire to control Stiviano’s social media presence. He loses his temper with Stiviano because she posted a photo to Instagram of herself and Magic Johnson. “I’m just saying, in your lousy f**king Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself…walking with black people,” he scolds, adding, “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.” Sterling wants Stiviano to treat her black friends like they’re a dirty secret to be enjoyed in private, when she, not being a nutty racist weirdo, wants to treat them like you do any other friends. And what do we do with friends? We take pictures of ourselves with them and put them on Instagram.
Social media also helped play a role in shaping the response to Sterling’s outburst, as fans and others took to Facebook and Twitter to make it clear how unacceptable they found this. Various celebrities who, in the past, would have stayed silent or used their PR agents to issue official responses instead took to social media for brasher, less filtered—and therefore more popular—responses. Snoop Dogg, Rihanna and Lil Wayne all denounced Sterling in highly shared posts on Instagram and YouTube. Social media helped capture the rising tide of anger at Sterling, causing sponsors to pull out and the NBA to start exploring options about what to do.
Something similar happened at RadiumOne. The growing social media outrage against Gurbaksh Chahal, the founder and CEO who was accused of beating his girlfriend, led to the RadiumOne board voting to fire him. The outrage stemmed in no small part from the sense that Chahal was not being held properly accountable for his actions. The police grabbed a video, taken by Chahal’s own security cameras, of the incident that reportedly shows Chahal hitting his girlfriend 117 times in a half-hour, but the judge threw it out because it was obtained without a warrant. Between this and his girlfriend’s reluctance to cooperate with law enforcement, Chahal was able to plead down to misdemeanor battery charges and not see a day in prison for his crime.
In the past, a wealthy and powerful man like Chahal, under the gun like this, would usually hire a PR agent to get his side of the story out to the press. Nowadays, however, the ready availability of digital technology makes it all too easy to skip the professionals and go straight to the public with your side of the story. This is exactly what Chahal decided to do, writing a self-serving defense of himself on his personal blog titled “Can You Handle The Truth?” where he both minimized the severity of his crime and tried to garner sympathy.
It was a bad idea, at least for Chahal. His attempt to defend himself backfires dramatically, as he comes across as arrogant and misogynist. “The humiliation and shame I feel is immeasurable. The dollar cost to my business and my reputation is incalculable,” he complains, failing to mention any suffering or humiliation he dished out to his girlfriend as he chased her around the house while hitting her.
Chahal swears he abhors “violence of any kind,” but most of his piece is geared toward minimizing his responsibility for choosing to use violence. “The situation that resulted in my legal case began,” he writes in the passive voice, as if the beating was something that happened to him instead of something he chose, “when I discovered that my girlfriend was having unprotected sex for money with other people.”
“I make no excuse for losing my temper,” he writes, even though that’s exactly what he did by blaming his girlfriend’s actions for tempting him into beating her.
He accuses people who are outraged about this story of bad faith: “This was all overblown drama because it generates huge volumes of page views for the media given what I have accomplished in the valley,” he whines, as if it’s impossible for people to actually be concerned that a wealthy man with access to top-line legal counsel is avoiding having to see justice for what is a very serious crime. Not that Chahal accepts that domestic violence as serious. He wavers between calling the accusations against him “false” and “misleading” and admitting that he did it, but saying it’s no big deal and just a matter of him “losing his temper.”
It’s a nauseating read, but it’s also a huge gift to anti-domestic violence activists. By skipping the traditional process of having a PR agent launder his public statements to make them sound humble and accountable and instead going straight to the public with his blog, Chahal ends up producing a textbook example of the dissembling, self-serving rationales that are common for domestic abusers to produce when caught in the act. Even though Chahal claims to have “learned a lot from this experience” and that he “will continue to grow,” he comes across as someone far too narcissistic and selfish to do either.
Between Chahal and Sterling, this past week has demonstrated a huge advantage to the way social media and digital technology are shining light on parts of our lives that used to be much easier to hide from the public. Privacy is a great thing and we should want to preserve some of it, of course. However, “privacy” has also been used in the past as a cover for all manner of bigotry and violence, and that is a kind of privacy that people ought not to have.