Is it time to stop worrying and love the panopticon?

Lessons from the attempted outing of the creator of a list of alleged male predators

Always watching.
(Image credit: Punkbarby / Alamy Stock Photo)

The latest wrinkle in the "shitty media men" story has got me wondering: Is it time to stop worrying and learn to love the digital panopticon?

For those who haven't been following the news, last October a list began circulating privately of, as the list's title had it, "shitty media men" — men who were accused of anything from creepy behavior at the office to rape and violent assault. The list was passed around avidly, and added to by multiple women. When the original creator tried to take the list down, she discovered she couldn't. It had, as they say, gone viral.

The real-world consequences had many layers. A number of women in media discovered that they were not the only victims of particular men, which galvanized them to be more vocal than they had been. Some of the men named were investigated by their employers, and in at least some cases lost their jobs. A meta-conversation developed around the list itself: Was it an unaccountable form of vigilantism, or a just the beginning of a long-overdue accountability moment?

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The two latest turns of the screw came so quickly as to induce dizziness. Harpers Magazine was preparing to run an article by the writer Katie Roiphe that many believed would include the identity of the woman who created the list in the first place. Though Roiphe herself later denied any intent to reveal the woman's identity, a Twitter-based campaign had already been launched to punish Harpers for what some saw as punishing a whistleblower.

And now, the originator of the list, Moira Donegan, has outed herself preemptively.

In Donegan's essay explaining why she created the list in the first place, she doesn't really explain why she chose to end her anonymity, other than to say that the widespread outrage about the prospect of her being outed "made it seem inevitable that my identity would be exposed even before the Roiphe piece ran." That sounds like she was following a good public relations manual and "getting out ahead of the story": By revealing what others would have exposed, she would get to set the terms on which her story would be understood.

It's a wise strategy — but it presumes a strength and willingness to endure exposure and its potentially threatening consequences. So there's a fairly bitter irony here. The list was created to "out" men who were getting away with harassment because of what contributors saw as systemic power imbalances in their workplaces. Anonymity made it possible for those women to pool their resources, and redress that imbalance. Critics (quite likely Roiphe herself had planned to be one of them) have argued that women have the responsibility to challenge male predators directly and publicly, rather than laying low (or giving in) and anonymously denouncing them later. It's an argument which is frequently called victim-blaming. But when Donegan was being threatened with exposure herself, she discovered that her only practical recourse was to do exactly what those critics have suggested in the context of workplace harassment: speaking directly.

Donegan's essay concludes on a note of no regrets. And good for her. But exposure is still a double-edged sword. It's just as readily available to the variety of shitty men skulking on Reddit who her supporters feared would harass and threaten her. Weapons don't care about the nobility or cruelty of those who wield them. Their power is available to anyone who would use it.

Of course, those Reddit users are already using that power; that's why we had #GamerGate. So the last thing women like Donegan should do is unilaterally disarm.

But the end game of a widening gyre of revelation and exposure is unlikely to be a world in which shitty men are scared into behaving well while women get to do the scaring. Rather, it's likely to be a world in which all of us know rather more about each other — who we hurt, yes, but also who was hurt; who's cheating and who's cheated on; what jokes we told when we were drunk, and what we look like naked — than we might have wished anyone else to know, or to know about anyone else.

We'll all adapt to that world, perhaps by changing our behavior, or perhaps by learning to tolerate behavior that we thought would scandalize us. Megan McArdle's recent comment — "people who live among both criminals and victims don't have the abstract luxury of hoarding all their empathy for one side of the discussion" — may be the way we all ultimately muddle through in the world aborning.

But there will still be injustice, and those who want to speak the truth to power will have to run the fearful gauntlet of exposure. Like they already do.

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