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Hero or Bad Boyfriend? Edward Snowden and the Personalization of Public Debate

Why does anyone care how good a person the NSA leaker is? Because public debate has become more and more about personality and tribal identification

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Edward Snowden, leaker of the NSA surveillance programs, is a hero. No, he’s a narcissistic criminal. Scratch that, he’s totally a hero. Far from it: he’s an alienated loner, a traitor, a bad boyfriend. But also? A smokin’ hottie! Barely a day after Snowden revealed himself as the source who gave information to the Guardian about phone and Internet data collection, the debate over privacy and security was joined by a debate on whether Snowden was an icon or a villain.

It’s ironic, but shouldn’t be surprising, that a news story about personal privacy in the digital age should become a personality-based argument. We’ve seen this with other secrecy and leaking cases — Julian Assange, Bradley Manning — as critics of the leak begin attacking the messenger and defenders elevate said messenger as a way of counterattacking. A major public issue becomes another celebrity story, like a Hollywood divorce. The person becomes a proxy for the cause; to admit any flaws (on the one hand) or nobility (on the other) is to give comfort to the enemy, and so he becomes sainted or demonized, depending whose blog you’re reading.

Why should anyone not personally connected with Snowden give a crap about how good a person he is? To some extent, the argument over whether he’s a hero or traitor is an argument about the privacy issue itself; if the NSA program is unconscionable, then he must be a hero of conscience, for instance.

But in the end, these arguments are stand-ins for the actual issues; they’re not the issues themselves. A Snowden or Assange could be a not-so-great person advocating a worthy position, or vice versa. It’s also possible to argue, say, to condemn the government Hoovering up phone records yet question whether people with access to state secrets should be able to declassify them unilaterally. Or it should be, anyway. Dividing the debate between Team Snowden and Team NSA, though, crowds out the room for the arguments in between both poles.

Which is one reason, I think, that the Team This/Team That mentality is so prevalent in debate now. We’ve evolved an entire system of rhetoric to enforce ideological discipline, to delegitimize positions that are nuanced or less than 100% pure. If you argue that someone is using the wrong tactics in the service of the right belief, you’re a “concern troll,” and sorry, I don’t have to listen to you anymore. If you’re a Republican governor who praises a Democratic President for helping your state after a disaster, then I declare you a “RINO” and la la la, I can’t hear you anymore. (Criticize multiple sides’ behavior in a political debate, of course, and you’re guilty of “false equivalence.”)

So while it may address the larger privacy-vs.-security issue to argue whether Snowden is a hero, it also says something about people’s inability to frame political issues now through anything other than tribal affiliation: if you’re on my side, then you like the people I like, and you stay loyal. In political media, in social media, in cable news and talk radio, people reward certitude: strong, unambiguous, from-the-gut passion, preferably expressed as soon as possible. No hemming and hawing! No wimps! Take a goddamn side!

The team mentality is an easy shorthand for expressing that attitude, and for enforcing it. It encourages sharp division and bright lines, and it frames politics not in terms of philosophy or policy beliefs but attitudes toward personalities. How often have you heard someone characterized as a “liberal” or “conservative” based not on their having expressed a particular position on a political issue but on whether they say nice or mean things about President Obama or Speaker Boehner?

I realize that I risk making myself captain of Team Obvious by even writing this; people are tribal, and the abstract is more powerful when linked to personal stories, and it was ever thus. But at the least, all the personality attacks and the Team My Guy defenses exacerbate a polarization — and active hostility to nuance — that’s already a problem in public debate.

Snowden may or may not be a hero, but keep in mind one thing that a hero is: someone who is aware that ideals and principles are finally more important than personalities. The least we nonheroes can do is try to remember that too.