On The Value Of Privacy
“The ideal of privacy...insists that individuals should be allowed to define themselves, and to decide how much of themselves to reveal or to conceal in different situations.”
– Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze
“…in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he'd never admit in public, and so forth.”
– Milan Kundera, quoted in Rosen
Discussions on privacy in recent years have focused on all the ways it is being eroded or violated in this new information age of ours. Relatively little attention, however, has been given to the value of privacy. Is privacy an inviolable right, and if so, why? Why do some thinkers see it as the sine qua non of a free and decent society?
The subject is taken up by the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen in The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (New York: Random House, 2000), a book written 13 years ago which foretold many of the abuses making the news today. The passages below have been excerpted from pages 8-12, 208, and 223-224.
“Privacy protects us from being misdefined and judged out of context in a world of short attention spans, a world in which information can easily be confused with knowledge. True knowledge of another person is the culmination of a slow process of mutual revelation. It requires the gradual setting aside of social masks, the incremental building of trust, which leads to the exchange of personal disclosures. It cannot be rushed...In a world of short attention spans, privacy is necessary to protect citizens from the misjudgments that can result from the exposure of too much information as well as too little information. Filtered or unfiltered, information taken out of context is no substitute for the genuine knowledge that can only emerge slowly over time...
“Privacy is necessary for the formation of intimate relationships, allowing us to reveal parts of ourselves to friends, family members, and lovers that we withhold from the rest of the world. It is, therefore, a precondition for friendship, individuality, and even love. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes how the police destroyed an important figure of the Prague Spring by recording his conversations with a friend and then broadcasting them as a radio serial. Reflecting on his novel in an essay on privacy, Kundera writes, “Instantly Prochazka was discredited: because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he'd never admit in public, and so forth.”
“Freedom is impossible in a society that refuses to respect the fact that “we act different in private than in public,” Kundera argues, a reality that he calls “the very ground of the life of the individual.” By requiring citizens to live in glass houses without curtains, totalitarian societies deny their status as individuals, and “this transformation of a man from subject to object is experienced as shame.” Putting a similar point in a different way, the sociologist Erving Goffman argued that individuals, like actors in a theater, need backstage areas where they can let down their public masks, collect themselves, and relieve the tensions that are an inevitable part of public performance...
“Goffman's backstage is a social rather than a solipsistic place, designed not for solitary labor but for relaxed interactions with peers, free from the observation of superiors. And to the degree that all communications in cyberspace are monitorable and traceable by employers, cyberspace itself is now being treated as a front region rather than a backstage area, and its growth has decreased the private spaces in which we can express ourselves free from corporate scrutiny. The “profanity, open sexual remarks, elaborate griping,” to use Goffman's examples, that used to be expressed around the watercooler or coffee machine are now, when recorded in e-mail, transformed from opportunities for letting off steam to potential evidence of illegal harassment...
“The ideal of privacy...insists that individuals should be allowed to define themselves, and to decide how much of themselves to reveal or to conceal in different situations...In society, it is impossible not to have your dignity assaulted by the unwanted gazes of others, and not to be misdefined and misjudged and wrenched out of context. Society is an orgy of judgments and misjudgments. But by respecting the boundaries between public and private speech and conduct, a liberal state can provide sanctuaries from the invasions of privacy that are inevitable in social interactions...
“We are trained in this country to think of all concealment as a form of hypocrisy. But we are beginning to learn how much may be lost in a culture of transparency: the capacity for creativity and eccentricity, for the development of self and soul, for understanding, friendship, and even love. There are dangers to pathological lying, but there are also dangers to pathological truth-telling. Privacy is a form of opacity, and opacity has its values. We need more shades and more blinds and more virtual curtains. Someday, perhaps, we will look back with nostalgia on a society that still believed opacity was possible and was shocked to discover what happens when it is not.”