By now you've no doubt heard about Carrie Prejean, "Miss California," who (at least as of Tuesday) will be allowed to retain her title despite the possibly malicious public release of nude or semi-nude pictures of the young woman. The story and controversy surrounding Prejean is an increasingly common example of political correctness run amok. What each of us may overlook, in the wash of media sensationalism and breathless, contrived-scandal-of-the-moment "journalism," is the role that technology plays, or can play, in the almost instantaneous destruction of an individual's reputation and career. What was done to Carrie Prejean should serve as stark reminder and ominous warning to all American citizens, who live in a socio-political landscape characterized by sudden-death "gotcha" reporting and looming, unwritten thought crimes.
If you're not familiar with the story, I'll sum it up for you. Carrie Prejean was named first runner-up during the April 19 Miss USA pageant. One of the judges was avowed homosexual activist Mario Lavandeira, a rather unctuous gossip blogger who goes by the pseudonym "Perez Hilton." During a question-and-answer segment of the pageant, Lavandeira asked Prejean her opinion of same-sex marriage. Prejean, struggling not to anger anyone, offered a very furtive, much-qualified response: While she meant no offense, she said, she had been raised to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This is an entirely unremarkable view held by a majority of Americans, who live in a country where same-sex marriage is still illegal in a majority of states.
After the pageant aired and this little tableau turned into a largely media-manufactured controversy, Lavandeira made no secret of his opinion that this politically incorrect answer cost Prejean the Miss USA title. While the manner in which Miss USA (under the heavily browed watchful gaze of Donald Trump) conducts its business isn't of particular interest, the ensuing multimedia firestorm surrounding Prejean is. It underscores the power of our connected, contemporary, networked and technologically dependent society to destroy someone (or come very close to doing so) in only a few days.
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On television, on radio, and from news sites to the blogosphere across the network of networks that is the Internet, it seemed everyone suddenly had an opinion of Carrie Prejean's opinion. More significantly, most of those people had an opinion of Prejean herself, attacking her viciously and childishly for daring to express an opinion deemed politically incorrect by a minority of Americans. In what was the confluence of timing, connectivity and media sensationalism, nude or semi-nude photos of Prejean began to surface. The photos immediately became available worldwide; they or their existence were posted or mentioned at countless websites. Virtually overnight, anything that could hurt Prejean, anything at all that could be dug up and distributed, was. More legitimate entertainment outlets followed up by playing footage of a then-not-so-famous Prejean engaged in various modeling jobs on camera, fueling the inflammatory atmosphere surrounding her plight if not feeding the acrimonious flames themselves.
There was plenty of brutally and inappropriately personal acrimony to go around, too. The frequently irrational, always left-leaning and possibly rabid Keith Olbermann tore her apart. MSNBC host Contessa Brewster, through her account on the incredibly popular (and increasingly so) micro-blogging site Twitter, called Prejean a "hater." Metro Weekly, which bills itself as Washington, D.C.'s, "Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Newsmagazine," attacked Prejean's family, calling it "your all-American broken home." Elites TV ("Your elite news source," it claims in a trademarked slogan) labeled Prejean a lying homophobe. Soap opera star Clementine Ford (who is gay) called Prejean a "whore" and a "dick", while Cybil Shepherd called Prejean's pageant answer "stupidity." "Transgendered New York City entertainer" Candis Cayne made vague threats against the poor woman, warning of the wrath of a veritable gay mafia of hair stylists, makeup artists and wardrobe personnel who would presumably take their revenge on Prejean for daring to believe same-sex marriage is not normal. Soft-core pornography pin-up model Dita Von Teese called Prejean's opinion "pathetic," while Mario Lavandeira himself followed up several days of working the media circuit to insult Prejean by calling her "ignorant" and saying he had "forgiven her."
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What happened to Carrie Prejean can happen to anyone. It isn't just that technology connects us. Large parts of our lives occur or are posted, cataloged, reported, or otherwise archived at sites or through sources that can be accessed through the Internet. It is very easy for people to find information about us (and post it publicly) when they suddenly discover they have reason to care. Carrie Prejean's "naughty" photos went unnoticed and unreleased for years before her sudden fame made them of interest. It took no real effort, no team of private detectives, for countless bloggers and media personalities alike to find every morsel of dirt they could on Carrie Prejean, attacking her incessantly through a fad-driven and relentless media cycle.
We live in the age of the viral video. An ordinary citizen can be plucked from obscurity and rocketed to instant celebrity simply because a photo or clip on the Internet was found entertaining or interesting by a few people, who forwarded it to a few other people, who linked it to still more people, who suddenly found themselves a majority. If there's a camera phone in the room, anything interesting, shocking, controversial, or otherwise noteworthy can and will find its way to the Web and then to the screens of millions of human beings, almost at the speed of thought. Given this, anything you say can and will be used against you, at any time someone deems it offensive. Where once giving offense meant dealing with a single angry person, it now means coping with one's instant infamy while contending with thousands or even millions of people who now have something bad to say to and about you. If we continue letting a hostile, intolerant minority dictate what is acceptable and unacceptable thought to a majority of Americans, we will have accepted technological dictatorship by default.