By Jim Norton
September 11, 2014

Why are conversations Donald Sterling had in the sanctuary of his home fair game to pick through and ridicule, but if someone steals nude celebrity photos and posts them on the Internet, a crime has been committed against humanity?

The recent photo hacking scandal involving Jennifer Lawrence and a hundred other celebrities has put America at great odds with itself. It has pitted our feeling of overwhelming entitlement to other people’s private information in direct contrast with our mortal terror that any of our own private information may somehow be made public.

And just as ugly as the scandal itself is the unquestionable revelation that Americans have become increasingly comfortable drowning in double standards and hypocrisy.

Don’t get me wrong. The national disgust over these hacked photos is completely appropriate. I guess I’m just not used to us actually caring.

Whoever is responsible for this hacking crime robbed these actresses of a lot more than a few pictures; they were robbed of the very basic ability to control what confidential and personal information was shared publicly. It’s a right most of us undoubtedly don’t appreciate until someone removes it by correctly guessing one of our passwords.

The only problem I have with this perfectly appropriate outrage is how it unintentionally holds up a mirror to the completely inappropriate lack of outrage to an infinite number of other privacy violations.

Is our tolerance for privacy infringement based solely on likability?

Donald Sterling’s plight was easy to ignore because he’s not a particularly likeable guy. Okay, fine, he’s reprehensible. He’s an entitled old billionaire racist who sounds like a parrot when he speaks. But it’s situations like his that show exactly how wavering we are with regards to our principles. Our lack of tolerance for these intrusions should not be based on ideological agreements or popularity.

It’s easy to defend the people we like.

What makes us truly great is to stand up for people we find fairly repulsive. We cannot continue to randomly decide whose secrets deserve to be kept and whose don’t.

If we truly intend to stop this invasive, creepy voyeurism, the first important step we need to take is to finally admit to ourselves how much we all enjoy it. Admit that we are addicted to seeing into other people’s living rooms, and admit we are comfortable judging them based on what we see.

We must also make the embarrassing and completely hypocritical admission that if we catch them looking into our living rooms, not only do we expect not to be judged by what they find, we expect them to be punished for looking in the first place.

Until we at least attempt to protect and value the privacy of each of our fellow citizens, each and every one of us will continue to feel vulnerable and exposed. And until that day, it’s exactly how we deserve to feel.

We have created quite a dilemma for ourselves.

I don’t remember any national outcry about the obscenity of personal information being leaked while we were all enjoying the clumsy, embarrassing text messages sent by Tiger Woods. Or the overtly humiliating – albeit hilarious – phone calls made by Mel Gibson, or the delightful answering machine messages left by Pat O’Brien or Alec Baldwin.

At times I’ve been indifferent to it as well. When my SiriusXM cohosts Opie and Anthony effectively put the final nail in Anthony Weiner’s coffin by tweeting out the photo of his erection, the only outrage I felt was a self-centered fear we were going to get fired.

I was as big a hypocrite as anybody reading this.

Some people will respond to the argument I’m making in grouping all these celebrities privacy invasions together by insisting that, ‘These women did nothing wrong at all, while Donald Sterling, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin were doing something wrong, so they deserved what they got.”

Making a point like that is a great way of convincing yourself that certain privacy violations are acceptable, simply because doing so exonerates us of any wrongdoing as we greedily gobble up the salacious information.

Keeping the onus on the likability of the victim allows us to convince ourselves that our collective snooping is at times justified. This need for self-convincing is easy to understand. No society wants to be confronted with the idea that one of its most guarded principles is very possibly nothing more than a transient façade.

For far too long, we have been saying that some forms of privacy transgression will be tolerated while other forms will not. We have also conveniently avoided writing down the rules as to which ones we will or will not stand for. There is no set of guidelines.

Depends on our mood that day, I guess.

Hopefully, the amoral pigs who stole these actresses’ photos will be caught and given at least 10 years in prison, like Christopher Chaney got for hacking into the email of Scarlett Johansson and others.

With the growing fears of electronic government intrusion into our lives, the last thing any of us needs is a constant reminder that our personal stock of intimate photos has the potential to be distributed as masturbation fodder to anyone with access to Wi-Fi.

And it’s not going to change anytime soon. The next step I’m sure will be to hack into celebrity Apple Watches and post their heart rates online.

But let’s not be so naïve as to alleviate ourselves of all guilt simply by blaming anonymous hackers. That’s too easy. The true culprit has been our collective silent complicity. We have not, as a group, stood up and said, “This will not be tolerated.” We have allowed it to exist on a “want-to-know” basis.

Whether the information we’ve learned has served to titillate or disgust us is irrelevant. It wasn’t ours to have in the first place.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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