There Are No Secrets

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Teen with Smartphone

Harvard University recently revoked offers of admission to at least ten incoming freshmen after they exchanged sexually-explicit memes and racist messages in a private Facebook group chat. The admitted students had formed a messaging group entitled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens” whose posts included memes and images suggesting sexual assault, and callously addressing such sensitive topics as the Holocaust and the deaths of children. According to the Harvard student newspaper The Crimson, “(s)ome of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing… One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child ‘piñata time.’”

The chat group evolved from a larger messaging group established by students admitted to Harvard’s class of 2021 in order to share tamer, more socially-acceptable memes. The students identified one another using an officially-sanctioned Harvard College Class of 2021 Facebook group. In order to be admitted to the edgier subgroup, students had to post controversial memes in the general group, ostensibly to establish their “street cred.”

When the existence and contents of this chat group came to the attention of Harvard administrators, they rescinded the acceptances of at least ten group members, based on the premise that Harvard “reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.” The students whose acceptances were revoked were informed that the decision was final.

There are different approaches one could take in response to this story. One might say, “Right on, Harvard! Way to send a message that such thoughtless and inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated!” One might also say, “Come on, Harvard! Graduating high school seniors are still kids. They made an innocent error in judgment – you could have let them off with a warning!” I have a position but it’s actually immaterial. I think the greater lesson here is not just for the ten or so students who were dismissed but for all of us: there are no secrets.

Historically, secrets have always been hard to keep. Bigsan and Seresh plotted to kill Ahasuerus but their plot was discovered (Esther 2). Yitzchak was unsuccessful in concealing from Avimelech that Rivka was his wife (Genesis 26). Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave but he quickly realized that “surely the matter has become known” (Exodus 2:14). Please note that none of these gentlemen had a smartphone or a Facebook account. As tough as it was to fly under the radar before radar was actually invented, it’s practically impossible now.

Again, I am not making a judgment call. This is not necessarily evil. We opt in to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We choose to use phones and transit cards that track our movements. We accept cookies that monitor our online lives and market to us accordingly. We could discontinue any of these at any time but we have decided that the conveniences afforded us outweigh the invasions of our privacy. This is the world in which we exist, so we must live our lives accordingly.

The first thing to consider is that everything we say and do online is there forever. Even if you delete an ill-conceived photo or tweet, it’s still out there. Pages are cached. Friends download your photos to their hard drives. Rivals take screen-shots of your more questionable posts. Truly getting rid of anything is a Herculean task – perhaps a Sisyphean task, as it simply may be impossible ever to complete.

The other thing to consider is that nothing is truly private. In this day and age, the first thing done by any job or school to which one applies is to Google the applicant. This can be a mixed blessing. Your record-breaking track meet is online but so are your Twilight fan fiction and your DUI. (Students think they’re being clever by using a pseudonym on Facebook, but admissions officers know that trick and trust me, they’re at least as web savvy as the applicants. Remember, they know a student’s high school, his or her parents’ names and more, so they can still find an applicant’s Facebook profile in 30 seconds.)

Especially dangerous are photos of an intimate nature that may be sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend (or to anyone else). The other person may not prove to be so trustworthy, the relationship may end badly, or the phone may simply fall into the wrong hands. This is not idle speculation. It happens. A lot. Storylines involving “slut-shaming” photos on shows like Riverdale and Thirteen Reasons Why are actually PG fictionalizations of some very disturbing real-life events. The reality is that once you put something out there, you forfeit control over where it goes next.

In Pirkei Avos (2:1), Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi tells us, “If you pay attention to three things, you will not come to sin. Know that above you there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a book.” Never before has this been truer or more apt. We just never predicted that the book where our deeds were going to be recorded would be Facebook.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.