Who is Listening to You? – The Lesson of Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling is a pig. That is clearly not a controversial statement given all that we have learned of the displaced Clipper owner over the past month or so. It is not just the racist statements we recently learned about but it is also his history of potential racism and racial mistreatment. Even beyond that, I find it distasteful the way he paraded his ex-mistress in public. A fifty year marriage evidently meant nothing to him. Perhaps this makes me a prude but I still think that adultery indicates poor character and I have little respect for anyone who participates in it. But as bad as adultery is, it is much worse to exhibit it publically and humiliate one’s wife. Finally, he has a reputation as being a litigious person. I know that at times one must use the law to correct that which is wrong but litigious people strike me as people who care much more about their rights than what is generally right. I like to try to find the good in people, but Sterling makes it very difficult for me to do that with him.
Blasting Sterling is not a brave thing to do these days. There seems to be no one to defend him. How can he be defended given his many sins and shortcomings? Furthermore, he does not help his case when he states that the lesson he learned was that he should have paid his mistress off. I have no desire to defend him as a person. And yet there is an aspect of this controversy that does not sit right with me. I fear that it may set a precedent for our society if we do not confront it. That aspect is the violation of Sterling’s privacy. According to reports, his comments were recorded on what he assumed was a private phone call. No matter what I think about the fact that he has a mistress, it is reasonable for him to think that this was a private conversation and not a public speech. Yet, it was the source of his undoing. That is troublesome.
There is more than this single conversation that provides evidence to disturb us about Sterling. He has been the target of racial discrimination lawsuits. The government has accused him of housing discrimination. Somewhere there are poor Hispanic and Black residents who did not obtain housing as easily as they should have because of his racism. We could argue that the conglomeration of this evidence was the undoing of Sterling, but the reality is that it was the taped phone call that got all of the attention. All of the other evidence we have against Sterling was present before the taped call, but we did not really pay attention to that evidence until the phone call. It was the taped private conversation that was the precipitating event in Sterling’s downfall.
So if I am honest, the question of Sterling comes down to this – he is being punished because of a private conversation? He made repulsive disgusting statements in that conversation, but it was done with an expectation of privacy. What disturbs me is that he is being held accountable for a private conversation. Does this mean that the new standard is that we have to not only watch what we say publically but also privately? Is this getting into thought police territory? Think the right thoughts or you will be punished. In the case of Sterling this is not merely a loss of reputation but he has been fined and his ownership of the Clippers is being taken away from him. As ugly as his comments are, the implications of this is even uglier.
We already live in a society where there is more information out there on us than ever before and that information can be easily obtained. Generally, we ourselves put that info out there for all to see. I am amazed at what some individuals put on their facebook or twitter accounts. Those of us who write blogs need to be aware that our comments can be used against us in future years. However, that information is public and those who offer it have to be responsible for what they have said, as long as it is reported back in proper context. I retain the right to present myself publically in the way that I want to be presented and accept that I will be judged for that presentation. Fair enough.
But it is not fair when information about me that is not public can now be used to judge me. I am being told that I am responsible for my private conversations as well. It is not merely this taped private conversation. Freedom of information requests can be used to gain access to private emails. I am not a techie but I know that there are ways people can snoop on us and find out which websites we have visited. Information about where we live and work can be gained for a price. I have watched friends and colleagues of mine have their private worlds made public due to these sorts of techniques. I do not like hyperbole, but this does sound like what is expected in a totalitarian society.
It is tempting to ignore these ramifications because of the character of Sterling. Surely a nice person like I would not say something as despicable as he did. But I know that I have said things in private that I am not proud of. I would hate to be judged on the worst thing I have ever said in private. I get a feeling that all of us would have a sick feeling in our stomach if we were judged on the worst thing we ever said in private. I suspect that anyone’s reputation can be destroyed if that person had his/her private conversations aired. Furthermore, in a society with so much cultural hostility, anyone who takes a strong stance on anything will gain enemies who will desire to destroy such reputations. Yes we can feel good about the fall of Sterling, but if we are not careful we may face a similar fate if we move towards a society where our private, as well as public, conversations and ideas are held to such scrutiny.
The saving grace in the Sterling situation is that there is so much other information to justify the punishment he will receive. The lawsuits and accusations provide a fuller picture of who this man is. But what will happen when we have a case of someone saying a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic etc. thing that is totally in private and then that person loses his/her job. Has the Sterling example made us less sensitive to the loss of privacy that person has suffered from and the unfairness of how he/she is treated? Is this the precedent that will ultimately threaten the sense of privacy, that we have enjoyed? It is questions like these that force me to consider issues beyond the ugliness of Sterling and consider the larger ramifications of what has taken place.
One possible solution is that we as a society learn to ignore information gained by the violation of a person’s privacy. Thus no matter how bad it makes a person look, we as a public learn to negate any information we learn when his/her private conversation is disclosed to us. But ultimately that is not realistic. As concerned as I am for the violation of Sterling’s privacy I cannot dismiss the knowledge I have of his racial attitudes. My attitude towards him is forever changed.
So perhaps the only real solution is to make sure that we provide disincentives for individuals to violate the privacy of others. My understanding is that the recording of Sterling violated the law in California. What that means to a non-lawyer like me is that V. Stiviano and possibly whoever else released the taping to TMZ needs to be on the legal hook. But that is not good enough. I think TMZ should also be accountable. There is too much at stake here with our privacy. It would be acceptable to me if Sterling is able to sue TMZ for lost reputation and financial damages. It would be acceptable to me if he won a huge settlement – the type of settlement that would make a media organization think twice about running a taping of a private conversation. The idea of Sterling obtaining more money is not a desirable idea, but he is already a billionaire. The addition of a few hundred million dollars is not going to lead to any great changes in his life. But the loss of that money from TMZ may prevent the next media outlet from running the tape of a private conversation obtained by illegitimate means. So I believe that if I was on the jury of a civil trial of Sterling versus TMZ, given my current state of knowledge, I would rule in favor of Sterling despite the personal disgust I have for him so that I can make sure that TMZ is punished. There are simply too many other important issues of privacy at stake for me to allow my personal feelings to lead to any other decision.
Since I am not a lawyer I have no idea whether such a lawsuit is possible. If it is not, then we as a society may have to engage in informal sanctions against TMZ. Sterling has taken it on the chin over the past few weeks and the scorn launched his way is well deserved. Some have questioned the role of V. Stiviano in this fiasco and that is appropriate. TMZ should not escape unscathed for their participation in this mess. We as a public should begin to question those who are willing to violate our privacy. But I doubt that we will do this. We enjoy the tantalizing stories gained by the invasion of privacy of famous individuals. I fear that we do not consider the long term effects of this invasion and at some point we common people will lose our privacy. That will be a tragedy as I have stated that I do not want to be judged by the worst thing I have ever privately said. Do you?


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