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ELIZABETH RENZETTI

What happens to private morality when the camera is watching? Add to ...

How strange to see powerful men brought down not by the courts or revolution, but by their own noxious thoughts. Of course, mere noxious thoughts are not enough; most people are capable of keeping their evil musings locked inside their own internal crazy boxes.

What tripped up men such as Rob Ford and Donald Sterling was the collision of egos too large to be contained in a city or a stadium with technology small enough to slip into a pocket.

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Mr. Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, was taped privately expressing his distaste for African-Americans, despite the fact that the ones he employs have been largely responsible for creating his wealth.

That tape somehow found its way to the gossip website TMZ for the world to hear, and the poison that had been private hissed free, and engulfed Mr. Sterling. Now he’s a pariah, and banned from the NBA.

Mr. Ford, Toronto’s Nosferatu mayor, refused to let his political career die no matter how many stakes were driven into its heart. Allegations of drug-taking, consorting with criminals, drunk driving, racist and misogynist comments – all were ignored by the mayor for months until an audio tape procured by The Toronto Sun and a video seen by two Globe and Mail reporters provided proof of his troubled nature.

In the audio tape, Mr. Ford makes repulsive sexual comments about a political rival and uses the words “wop” and “dago.” The video appears to show him smoking something in a pipe.

Faced with this evidence, Mr. Ford finally crumbled, and agreed he needed to take a leave of absence and seek help for his “problem with alcohol.” This is crucial: In the cases of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Ford it wasn’t shame over the behaviour that prompted contrition, it was being presented with photographic and audio evidence.

Technology, it seems, has become a kind of group conscience. There was a time in the West when a healthy fear of God kept people in line: If you were Christian, you believed that He saw every hand dipped into the till, every lustful gaze at a neighbour’s wife, every secret sin.

A wary Christian would have known that “no creature is hidden from His sight.” And because God saw, and kept track, there was a good chance that, if you didn’t behave, you’d find yourself rattling in vain on St. Peter’s gate one day. It was a powerful way of enforcing community standards.

Now that there’s no supernatural fear to police private morality, I wonder if the camera has taken the place of that all-seeing eye. Of course, instead of one eye glaring from heaven, there are 4.4 billion red lights flashing on camera phones around the world.

That’s a lot of private conversations to be surreptitiously taped – a lot of bad behaviour to be spied upon. Is it any wonder that the eye has now been banned from some of our places of worship, such as gyms and French restaurants and celebrity weddings?

This omniscience is either terrifying or thrilling, depending on which side of the camera you stand. I can guess which side Jeremy Clarkson might choose: The BBC Top Gear host, long known as a professional big mouth, is in hot water for allegedly using a racial slur when reciting the children’s rhyme Eeny Meeny Miny Moe.

We would never have known about Mr. Clarkson’s taste in retro rhymes, except that the cameras were rolling on his television show when he said it. Mr. Clarkson has since apologized for “mumbling” the word, saying he didn’t intend to use it.

And how about the police in Buffalo, N.Y., currently being investigated for allegedly beating a handcuffed man? The incident, which took place in the dark, was filmed by a passerby and uploaded to YouTube. Possibly they were happier when things that happened in the dark stayed in the dark.

But nothing takes place in the dark any more. There is no private utterance that can’t be shared a million times over, no unguarded moment that will escape infinite reproduction. And the idea of an all-seeing conscience bent on punishment is no less troubling now than it was when it had a white beard and a smiting finger.

On the subject of Donald Sterling, for example, Poynter Institute journalism professor Al Tompkins wondered to NPR, “Doesn’t he have the right to say what he believes [in a private moment], no matter how reprehensible, without fear of somebody recording it and putting it online?”

Perhaps the more interesting question is: Would he have said it if he knew it would become public? Would Rob Ford have picked up the pipe if he’d known there was a camera watching – or did he in fact pick it up because the camera was there, hoping for the group conscience to punish him, since his own was clearly incapable?

How would private behaviour change if we felt that the world, and our kindly grandma, could hear every wicked thought? Should technology enforce morality? I think we’re about to find out.

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