Internet Tattletales — Is it Right to ‘Spy’ on a Neighbor?


By: Warner Todd Huston

A recent Wallstreet Journal editorial by Jennifer Saranow entitled The Snoop Next Door, highlighted some interesting websites that have been taking their slot on the World Wide Web of late… and, no, it isn’t porn.

Apparently these sites are being used to tattle on other people. One site claims to be ready to reveal bad drivers and people who don’t know how to park well, one to uncover the identity of the person who is stealing newspapers in the wee hours of the morning before the neighborhood is awake to get their morning editions, and one to highlight litterbugs. All supposedly feature video or clear photos of the perpetrators of the ill the website’s creators wish to right.

How should we, as freedom loving Americans, react to websites where people are tattled on, spied upon, or “outed” as the bad guy? The libertarian reaction might be to confront the website’s creator and ask them who the heck they think they are by publicly airing other’s dirty laundry? Still others would applaud the website because they get to jeer the “jerks” of society who cannot seem to abide by the rules.

Which is right? Which is the more “American” reaction to these snoop’s websites? Curiously enough, both are.

Our Right to Act Like a Jerk

There has long been a presumption in the United States that anyone can do anything they like. That everything is fair game, as long as what one citizen does doesn’t harm anyone else, violating another’s rights. Americans have always prided themselves that primogeniture and Royal privilege do not exist in the USA. The lowliest citizen “born in a log cabin” can become president, any poor boy with the drive and an idea can become a captain of industry. For the most part, that has always been right, too.

American exceptionalism holds that we can do or be anything and we can do it our way on top of it. We Americans feel we do not need anyone’s permission to do what we feel we need to do. We are a proud and stubborn people, bound and determined.

For some, though, they take this tradition and try to stretch it to cover boorish behavior. They imagine that their status as an American means they can “say what ever they want” because of “freedom of speech”. The courts have, for the most part, agreed with them.

So, at some level we have a somewhat accepted “right” in our laws to act like a jerk. That would make the websites that spotlights the jerks seem like a bad idea and perhaps posit that it is the website creators that have the “problem” and not the jerks who are highlighted there.

Social Laws and Custom

On the other hand, a society has every right to define what is and isn’t the “proper” way to act in public. A society has the right — even the obligation — to set up the rules by which everyone will be governed, to set up community standards. The proper comportment of an individual has always, until recently, been a very important consideration for Americans and anyone breaking the social contract was shunned.

George Washington had his 101 rules by which he lived and books of etiquette have always been big sellers in this country throughout much of its history. From the books by The Earl of Chesterfield to Miss Manners, Americans sought guides on how to act, what to wear, how to speak, walk, eat and entertain.

There was a time that ended not long ago when nether men nor women would step outside their houses without a hat on their heads and a jacket — or a shaw of some sort for women — across their shoulders. There was a time when curse words would never be uttered in mixed company, when to be seen as upset in public would be a sign that you are uncouth and unintelligent.

Public virtue was something that concerned the Founding Fathers to a great extent. Many Founders worried that the people would not be able to sustain the Republic because of the tendency of man to allow standards to degrade while existing in a state of freedom. Samuel Adams warned that “Liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.” Along with a degraded society, they also worried that the people would stop electing to office candidates of high minded virtue. Samuel Adams once said, “Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters.” But those men of character cannot be found if the society doesn’t produce them in the first place.

This requires that the people observe certain customs and rules of comportment in themselves as well as their elected officials. It comes down to a uniform sense of morality. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” And before Roosevelt, the great orator Daniel Webster also delved into the question when he said, “Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.”

Unfortunately, today we have people that make a living by ranting in public like angry, petulant fools and our “celebrities” make their name by acting like selfish, infant terribles.

So, while a live and let live Libertarian might say that people have no right to intrude on others the way the “outing” websites do, those interested in public virtue and a uniform public moral code might stand up and applaud.

Which American are you?

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