Which is worse: Telling a smutty but harmless joke in a public forum or blowing the whistle on said dirty-joke teller by alerting his employers?
Never were our twin obsessions with privacy and morality made clearer than in the aftermath of an incident that ended in a man losing his job for posting an anonymous comment to a newspaper website.
Two weeks ago, The St Louis Post-Dispatch invited readers to share "the craziest thing" they'd ever eaten. Among the mentions of alligator and moose was, predictably, the innuendo-laden name of a certain furry pet. The comment moderator, Kurt Greenbaum, deleted the post. It soon reappeared, at which point he determined the location of the poster - a school - and reported the remark.
According to Mr. Greenbaum, who called the incident "a teachable moment," the school identified the culprit, who subsequently resigned.
Mr. Greenbaum's zeal for persecution is disturbing. To me, it's clear whose behaviour was more distasteful. But rather than getting into a discussion of who transgressed more, or whether it's a tragedy that anonymity is no longer failsafe - both legitimate talking points - I say we use this story as our own teachable moment, about what it means to be human in that most public of forums, the Internet.
In the same week, a Quebec woman lost sick-leave benefits because photos on her Facebook page apparently belied her depressed state. Also, a schoolteacher alleged she lost her job for revealing on Facebook that she had a glass of wine and used the word "bitch" on her own time.
Now, it's easy to dismiss these people as victims of their own indiscretion. But the uncomfortable truth is that we have made technology so pervasive that we can't get away with hiding parts of ourselves from it - and its millions of users - any more. And as we become more and more exposed, we have a choice: We can try to button up and sell the world on squeaky-clean online versions of ourselves, or we can start to let it all hang out.
I'm in favour of keeping it real. (For starters, I wouldn't trust a teacher who didn't go home and pour a stiff one.) Frankly, I am saddened by the en-masse blandification that many so-called experts encourage. The fishbowl effect of Twitter or Facebook, where everything we do is potentially seen by hundreds of other people, is similar to that of the Panopticon - a craftily designed jail where prisoners never know if they are being watched or not, so they start acting as if they are being watched, even when they are not.
In my early days of tweeting, I made reference to my dirty underwear. I suffered a mild shameover later, when I considered how it reflected not just on me, but on this fine paper. But I've since realized that the only thing worse than revealing one's soiled laundry is pretending that it doesn't exist. I have no interest in a world in which we're all sanitized, polite, soulless versions of ourselves except when, under the cover of anonymity, we say outrageous things we're not accountable for.
There is hope. Some experts, such as Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, argue that future generations will be inured to the evidence of past indiscretions. You may be able to Google your boss, discover tan lines or political views that you never knew he or she had, and remain relatively indifferent. The absence of such relics will even come to seem suspicious, like evidence of something to hide.
Before we begin the hand-wringing about how this ushers in the decline of civilization, let me point out that for most of our existence on earth, privacy was truly scarce. I doubt it was easy, even 200 years ago, to have much of a secret life. The problem isn't that we are now being exposed as the imperfect beings we always have been. The problem is that, for a bunch of shining years, we were able to sell ourselves on the idea that a flawless life was normal and achievable.
The bittersweet coda is that Kurt Greenbaum's job may be in jeopardy now as a result of the hue and cry from the incensed online community - a turn of events that likely wouldn't have happened if he hadn't blogged so freely about his activities. Transparency: It's - well, it's a bitch.