Superstar Justin Bieber may have a lot to apologize for, but he shouldn’t say sorry for requesting greater privacy when he's in public.
Yes, this may seem like just another case of a spoiled celebrity whining that there’s a price to pay for fame. But it’s a mistake to see things that way. Mr. Bieber makes a genuinely ethical case for how he should be treated, and we all would benefit from respecting its validity.
As is apt for Digital Age declarations, last week Bieber announced he was "done taking pictures with fans" on Instagram, giving three reasons defending his decision. First, he’s come to feel dehumanized. “It has gotten to the point that people won’t even say hi to me or recognize me as a human, I feel like a zoo animal," he wrote. In the lingo of privacy scholars, his "personhood" is being ignored or diminished.
Second, Bieber rejects the idea that he owes fans pictures because they’ve contributed to his rising wealth and power by buying his products and boosting his clout. Bieber recognizes his life and relationships with others aren’t reducible to a dollar figure. To think otherwise is to make an existential mistake that resembles the dehumanization problem.
Many people, fans and haters alike, perceive Bieber to be as much of a purchasable commodity as his merchandise; folks assume buying his goods also entails an ownership stake in the artist. (Bieber, however, goes too far, rhetorically, in comparing the situation with to slavery.)
Comedian Amy Schumer recently testified to the same problem. She changed her approach to being publicly photographed after refusing to take a picture with a random man in the street. He didn’t want to respect her choice to be left alone and taunted, "No, it’s America and we paid for you."
The third reason Bieber offers is that he’s trying to set boundaries. Without them, he fears he could lose himself in the desires of the crowd.
This charge is consistent with the claim regularly made by privacy scholars that routine surveillance can create a chilling environment where people are afraid to act in experimental or nonconformist ways. This is especially important for someone as young as Bieber (he's 22), but it has no less applicability to older people. We should be able to keep maturing and refining our views until the day we die.
Despite being on firm ethical ground, practically speaking, Bieber’s demand for privacy is still an incredibly tall order. For the most part, American citizens – celebrities or average folks – simply don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public. This means Bieber is asking for his fans to voluntarily follow a social contract that he solely authored, one that imposes obligations that go beyond what the law requires.
Since Bieber’s special status provides him with access to all kinds of opportunities the rest of us aren’t offered, it’s easy to see how this one-sided appeal would make some feel resentful.
The problem is made worse by the machinations of the celebrity industrial complex. While Bieber doesn’t want to be seen as a permanent commodity, the fact is he's perfected the art of becoming one – at least when he's appearing as a professional entertainer. He’s regularly in the news, on the radio, Internet, and social media. Beyond the nonstop manufactured content that’s pushed out onto the world, there’s the opportunity for anyone, in principle, to have a dialog with him over social media (when this piece was written, he had 67.8 million followers on Instagram and 81.4 million on Twitter).
This media Blitzkrieg creates a sense of faux intimacy: a feeling that strangers actually know him inside and out; a feeling that strangers not only have a personal connection with him, but also personal history; and a feeling that Bieber wouldn’t possibly want distance from strangers who are better off being considered close acquaintances.
In an important sense, then, the changing technological environment is simultaneously the source of Bieber’s rise to fame (we shouldn’t forget that he got his start with DIY videos on YouTube) and privacy problems. In addition to the myriad ways fans can bring something connected to Bieber wherever they go (e.g. from home, to car, to school), the ubiquity of their camera-ready, Internet-enabled smartphones has dramatically decreased the cost of Bieber pictures being snapped up.
Paparazzi photo mobs take time and effort to coordinate. Yet, Bieber’s fans are numerous and everywhere. They don’t need to plan to photograph him. There’s plenty of chances for some of them to do it spontaneously, if he’s ever in plain sight. Bieber himself complains about times changing such that "now everyone has a camera phone."
Worrying about the power of portable cameras brings us back full circle to Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’s seminal 1890 article "The Right to Privacy" – a piece largely motivated by concern over the democratizing power of Eastman Kodak inventing snap cameras (in 1894) that were designed to spread photography beyond elitist professionals to a mass audience.
But what we’re living though now is more than the next chapter in the democratization of surveillance and publication tools. Our prevailing acceptance of taking and posting selfies everywhere – a practice that, itself, emulates celebrity culture – has baked a certain amount of photographic entitlement into our culture. Techno-social engineering is taking place. It’s becoming harder and harder to appreciate why we ought to refrain from using the hyper-efficient, super easy to use click and post buttons.
While celebrities have earned their place as public interest stories, it’s a mistake to insist they have forfeited their autonomy entirely – including the reasonable desire to resist having the public believe that they own them and are permitted to make interfering demands.
Privacy has value because it protects autonomy – the dignity of being a person, and the situated freedom within an environment to exercise our will. Bieber, like the rest of us, is not a commodity. He has a right to insist on not being bought, sold, or rented. The moment we start deciding who deserves autonomy and who has to be condemned to be a permanent, all-context commodity is the moment we start giving up on viewing privacy as something fundamental for everyone in a democracy.
Bieber may have chosen to sell his soul in some parts of his life, but he still deserves to have his humanity respected in others.