Submerging yourself in the daily churn of the internet provides plenty of ethical quandaries, but the past month has put the ethics of web browsing — and, more precisely, the ethics of avoiding certain things — into unusually stark relief. Because increasingly, the ethical dilemmas of the internet era turn not on whether to share, comment on, or disseminate something, but whether to look at it at all.
Two American journalists were beheaded by ISIS, and videos of those horrific killings were disseminated across the internet. Should you watch them? The answer was pretty clear: Because the gruesome videos were made to terrorize ISIS's enemies, the best way to thwart them was by refusing to watch the footage.
Private photos were stolen from celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, and were swapped between 4chan and Reddit users. Again, there wasn't much of a moral debate. The theft was widely (and correctly) denounced as an awful violation of privacy. Reddit eventually shut down the forum that was responsible for spreading them. It was wrong just to look at these photos.
But right and wrong aren't always this clearly cast. Consider the case of the NFL, which has spent the past few weeks in an ever-expanding nesting doll of controversies. (Seriously, take your pick.) But let's just focus on one. A shadow was cast over the league in February when Ray Rice, a superstar running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was arrested and charged with assaulting his then-fiancée (and now wife) Janay. Four days later, TMZ posted a video of Rice dragging Janay's unconscious body out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.
Several months passed. Then, a couple weeks ago, TMZ released a second video, this one documenting what happened in the elevator. The video is stomach churning. Rice and Janay get into an elevator. They argue. Rice winds up and punches her square in the face. She crumples, cracks her head on the elevator's side railing, and collapses, unconscious, onto the floor. Rice stands over her body; when the doors open, he lifts her up and drags her out.
This video is truly awful to watch. But it also has tremendous public value and is worth watching precisely because it has the power to change our national debate on domestic violence.
Black-and-white text doesn't capture the genuine horror of watching the assault. The events of Feb. 15 weren't exactly in dispute when the NFL laid down its initial suspension of Rice — a meager two games! — but make no mistake, the deciding factor in Rice's subsequent indefinite suspension (which came only after this second video was released) was the widespread availability of the footage, to which the NFL was finally forced to respond.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ray Rice ruling came the revelation of another alleged act of violence by an NFL superstar: Adrian Peterson, who was indicted after allegedly hitting his 4-year-old son with a switch. The controversy has led to a misguided public debate about spanking, but once again, photos posted by TMZ — and available to anyone with an internet connection — have been clarifying about the level of violence in question. It's hard to imagine anyone looking at the gashes on Peterson's son without feeling some kind of moral disturbance. These images undoubtedly changed the conversation about the incident; after briefly reactivating Peterson, the Vikings bowed to pressure and put him on an indefinite suspension.
Much has been written about the internet's ability to democratize, but rarely has its influence had such an immediate impact on such a powerful organization. In both Rice and Peterson's cases, the league's first reaction was to protect its assets and maintain the status quo. But the second that a single video or a few pictures were available for anyone with an internet connection to judge, the NFL had no choice but to back down — and, eventually, to announce a full overhaul of the policies that have led to such lax punishments.
That democratization comes with some uncomfortable side effects. There is at least one person who would have preferred that you didn't watch the Ray Rice TMZ video: Janay Rice, who took to social media to criticize the journalists who reported the story. "No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted options from the public has has caused my family," she wrote. "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret everyday is a horrible thing […] If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you've succeeded on so many levels."
It's easy to sympathize with Janay Rice's discomfort — no one wants to have an ugly chapter in their life scrutinized in such a public manner. But broadly, it's hard to see the power of the individual in these cases — and the subsequent ripple effects — as anything but a positive thing for a league that otherwise has a vested interest in failing to evolve.
So when is it okay to watch? When is it okay to look? It's not as simple as whether or not doing so violates someone's privacy. Janay Rice clearly feels that her privacy was violated.
The key thing is your reason for looking. Titillation, voyeurism, grotesque curiosity — if that's what's motivating your actions, don't look. But if you are motivated by genuine concern and believe that watching will challenge you to confront something difficult, and potentially change your views in a way that is good for our society, then by all means, look. We'll all be better off for it.