Note: This post has been adapted from a paper and slide deck that was presented to Dr. Florence Chee’s Digital Media Ethics class at Loyola University Chicago during Fall 2018. Special thanks to Dr. Chee for the invitation and to fellow SOC student, Lê Minh Hà Millie, for being a supportive friend and documentarian.
It has been a little over a year since the resurgence of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement and Alyssa Milano’s Twitter hashtag, #MeToo. This movement has empowered survivors to come forward, and the explosion of narratives published in various media outlets has served to function as a much-overdue catalyst in normalizing the discussion and disclosures of assault. Despite the varied approaches, a major ethical issue is whether to publicize an abuser’s name. For many, the allure of openly identifying an abuser in public is a substitute solution for justice, to correct the failures of criminal, civil or academic institutions.
Like doxing, revealing an abuser’s identity and previously obscured details presents a similar ethical issue. Doxing is typically seen as an unethical compromise of journalistic integrity and free speech; however, it is also frequently executed with the purpose of encouraging responsibility. The intention is that if the actor is no longer able to hide behind an identity with minimal impact to their offline persona, then culpability and consequence will follow suit. This desire for accountability rings true for survivors. However, the spectrum of emotion associated with trauma recovery can add a level of complexity to the decision to disclose. While working through my own experience as a survivor, I found myself using a conditional framework to make decisions regarding my disclosure, which centered on the safety of self and others, solidarity, and corroboration. These guidelines allowed me to remain objective and ensure that I was sharing my story in a way that I would feel ethically confident in once emotions had subsided.
Public shaming, while impactful in that it puts abusers out in the open, can often be more punitive than teachable. At times, the redaction of the assailants’ name in print is less about clemency and more about self-preservation in a professional or academic environment. Often survivors fear that the fallout from identifying will have consequences in their professional development, in addition to the complexities of basic survival. This “fear come to fruition” can be seen most recently in response to Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. As a recent Washington Post article states, her decision to come forward was motivated to alert others. The result is she has come under continued attack on social media and by the president, received death threats and had had her email hacked. Additionally, Dr. Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “a reporter appeared in my graduate classroom and I mistook her for a student, and she came up to ask me a question.” Yet, there is pressure not to report or identify for the expressed fear that identification will hurt the future of the abuser.
I am not suggesting that one should automatically impose leniency out of fear that the abuser might face real-life consequences, such as job termination, legal consequences or alienation from personal and professional circles. It is unlikely that abusers have this consideration when they decide to inflict violence. However, we have a moral obligation to, at the very least, contemplate the long-term consequences of our disclosure. It is paramount, in the decision-making process, that the moral compass is aligned to direct away from retribution. It is imperative that we release information for the right reasons, like securing safety, alerting others, providing support, or providing additional evidence.
Doxing does not run exclusively parallel to disclosing, but it can intersect in order to substantiate the credibility of a survivor’s fear. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than 27% of women have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime and experienced an intimate partner violence-related impact. Of these respondents, 62% reported feeling fearful, and 57% had concern for their safety.
In my case, I had difficulty articulating the validity of my fear when seeking a campus-wide ban from my university and a no-contact directive from a different university. As Title IX is designed to provide due process to both the complainant and respondent, it was necessary to substantiate my concern to both universities. In this circumstance, the decision came down to whether it was ethically appropriate to connect this individual’s academic persona to their online persona. The established and documented history under their alias served to support the credibility of my concern that this individual would continue to access inappropriate locations, without implementation of an institutional safeguard. Had they engaged in a behavior that was unrelated to the likelihood that they would end up in places that they otherwise should not be, it would not have been ethical to connect these two identities.
While I found it necessary and appropriate to disclose their name and online alias within the confines of academic institutions, I did not reach the same decision to publicize. Safety has ultimately been the guiding factor in all my disclosure decisions. Simply put, name-dropping puts that in jeopardy. This is an example in which a decision to not publicly disclose is more about self-preservation and less about clemency.
While silence may fuel abuse, forced anonymity does not prevent me from using my story to raise awareness or educate. If anything, not publicizing my abuser’s name improves audience relatability and improves listener awareness without subscribing behavior to a particular individual or gender. If someone is connected to the abuser, they may not be ready to accept that their friend, family member or colleague is engaging in this behavior because they have not experienced it directly. However, awareness of my story may alert them to trends in their immediate circle, as it did with other survivors of my abuser. In that case, knowledge allowed us to validate, support and corroborate each other. Regardless if forced or voluntary redaction exists, these narratives can still be impactful and beneficial.
More often than not, survivors receive advice that obligates them to “take the high road” or “be the bigger person,” regarding identification. It is not my position to determine if others should publicize. Ultimately, it is up to survivors to identify their motivation, desired outcome, method of execution, and terms, as I did. The path to recovery looks different for everyone, but the decision to disclose publicly should come down to a single question, “Am I publicizing their name for the right reasons?” Until the current environment shifts away from victim blaming, maintaining and encouraging narrative integrity is more important than ever.
If you are a college student in the Chicago area and are in need of resources, please feel free to check out the college resource guide that I compiled.
Baker, P. (2018, Oct. 3,). In risky shift, trump and G.O.P. directly assail christine blasey ford. New York Times