Human privacy is something we don’t tend to think about much, other than when considering the prospect of having it removed from us. Except I did, the other day when walking past a window with some particularly short and shoddy curtains which, whilst helping to illuminate the room somewhat, also drew my attention towards the student-standard MacBook, football posters, etc. there for all to see. It may also have been because I had on that day seen Andrew Sullivan’s ‘classic tory’ views on transparency within the American government, who claimed that whilst the government should certainly be accountable for its behavior they shouldn’t be totally exposed, nor should the content of meeting discussions be disclosed. They must have their privacy. So, is privacy perhaps the defining concept in the life of the free individual in a functioning society, those of us in the West?
Retreating to a Marxist perspective, one can muse on the idea that the existence of the private sphere comes from an oppressive capitalist society and that we are social creatures by nature, and a free-market global economy has isolated us from this very nature for hundreds of years. But we seem to have a more tenacious and inherent natural desire for privacy than almost anything else in Western society. We will fight for it at the risk of losing our lives, and overall it has clearly triumphed. Perhaps then, privacy is the embodiment of freedom itself. For those cynical about what this life virtue can produce, please listen to Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds as the soundtrack for reading and you’ll note a caricature of the perils of isolation centered on the private home.
What we consider the most oppressive societies in the world are surely those who do not permit a private life for the individual. North Korea is probably the best example of such a place which has strict ‘lights out’ blackout in the capital of Pyongyang around 10 p.m. All phone calls are monitored so private discussion is difficult to have at all, giving an unfailing reminder of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, actually published one year after the founding of this horrific state. A Korean citizen however, probably would not be able to think like Winston Smith; from a young age the confines of their social environment (and language, as is again demonstrable in Orwell’s newspeak) would undoubtedly constrict their concept of freedom or privacy or the possibility of such ideas even existing, let alone being attainable.
Again, I seem to have made ‘privacy’ synonymous with ‘freedom’, but can the two ideas actually conflict with each other? Those who feel uncomfortable around public toilets (like maybe those who are not cis-gendered) may dislike the social pressure of having to enter a designated male or female cubicle, in which case their freedom is limited by having to make a choice. Meanwhile, their business is still private. Social critics and Marxists will point out that our structures of upholding privacy in life, like this such example, or say being pressured to move into our own houses and flats from a young age, make us prisoners of ourselves and our true human nature. I myself see some aspects of this in society (with things like schooling), but reject the overall interpretation of a great social human nature. If we have any ‘natural’ aspects as humans, it is surely that we are curious and envious. These traits are shown through our fanaticism with tabloid newspapers in Britain and it is shown through the stoning of the woman who might have had a secret love affair in Saudi Arabia. Privacy, it seems, in the name of individual benefit, must be retained to a significant extent.
We like our privacy, but I wonder if we are so quick to permit others the same right. The sensation surrounding Julian Assange over the last two years is an intriguing case. Given that he and his associates leaked private files containing sensitive government information, does he still have a right to move freely without interruption or defend himself in the court facing a rape charge? Those who think not have to admit that, for them privacy is a content-free construction: if they permit it for one body, they must permit it for everybody. So bearing this in mind, I wonder whether I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s view. In the context of this discussion it must be pointed out that when we punish individuals, we do so by taking away their privacy (amongst other things), something I don’t necessarily disagree with, a thought which I think we like to relish for ‘moral’ or actual criminals. Assange if convicted might face the consequences of this in prison and it is up to the law to take into account the full details of the case. Still, I am sure we like to delve in the private lives of others more than we might admit. Trans* people, if asked often say that the reason so many people feel uncomfortable when they cannot immediately gender-type a person is because they want to know about the genitalia of strangers. And yet we would hardly say that a stranger has the ‘right’ to know such personal details.
If we are going to learn about humans and their habits and behavior for anthropological, socially progressive and historical means, a good degree of transparency seems like a must. There is a conclusive split between personal and social privacy and this is an argument elaborating on the former. There is a reason we feel horrified at the extreme invasions of privacy featured in The Lives of Others (2004), which is that we are so used to having our private lives relatively un-tampered with. But the more we shut ourselves off from the rest, the quicker society follows the trend.