by Brendan Beery
I used to be a big advocate of personal privacy, but maybe I had the wrong idea about what privacy means. When I have advocated for privacy – sometimes militantly – I have usually meant that we all have a right to our secrets. To me, privacy has meant the act of concealment: there are thoughts that I have had, things that I have wanted, conditions that have befallen me, and acts that I have done that must be known by nobody else – or at least by as few as possible. I have always assumed – and still do – that I am not alone in wishing to have my known self carefully stage-managed.
I saw some headlines today – I was too fatigued by them to read the stories – about yet another police shooting near St. Louis that has poked yet again that hornets’ nest of pent up rage against indifference and injustice. Whatever the details might be, I thought to myself that surely by now every police officer in the country understands that his or her every act is somehow being recorded. How can so much sloppiness and so much malfeasance be perpetrated under the glare of klieg lights dangling with all the subtlety of a marching band? Everything a police officer does is knowable – there is no privacy.
There is some reason for the taking of privacy from police officers: their acts are public acts done in the name of us all. What they do, therefore, is our business. But what about the rest of us – those whose acts and behaviors are not public or publicly sanctioned?
I wrote yesterday about the Ashley Madison data dump. Much has now been written about the data dump as harbinger. We are coming upon a time when there will be no secrecy for anyone. Period. Our medical records will be hacked. Our emails will be hacked. Technology will render the functions of walls and ceilings illusory: woe unto the fool who assumes they cannot be seen through, heard through, smelled through, even felt through.
Narcissists and moralizers will be hardest hit by the end of privacy as concealment, what with all the energies they ply in controlling the thoughts that others will have of them. But one senses that we had all best pry ourselves from our instinct to cocoon. After all, needing what cannot be had is anxiety’s kindling.
If we are to hue to privacy at all, it will be privacy of a different sort. This gets us back to what privacy means in the first place. As I wrote above, I have seen privacy as the art of secret keeping. But this is surely an unhealthy conception, even if it is the most common one. If we ask what gives rise to this need for secrecy and concealment, the answer cannot possibly be wholesome. It can’t be anything if it’s not embarrassment, self-loathing, fear of rejection – an anxious or even desperate drive to escape stigma. In a word, shame.
The funny thing about shame is that we all experience it. Yet we insist that, in experiencing something we all experience, we must each experience it alone. We cannot share our shame because anything we are ashamed about is something we shouldn’t have thought or wanted or done – that is why we feel shame to begin with. But as the veil of secrecy descends and we are all standing naked wishing we could hide behind air, something useful might happen.
Maybe we will begin to see that even though each of us has experienced his or her shame alone – that is, really, what loneliness is – we are not alone. There is not a thought, a want, an act, or a compunction that any one of us has had or done or undertaken that is not, in fact, common. Taboos are projections: we hide our real impulses from others and even ourselves by making a public spectacle of our antagonism toward them. Nothing would be taboo if less than a lot of people wanted it. (Lest I be accused of hedonism, I do not suggest here that everything many people want should necessarily be had.)
More and more, I don’t care what people know or think about me. Someone who wants to know my peccadillos must certainly have his own, or he wouldn’t want to know mine. Maybe we are heading toward a new kind of privacy once we all know that everyone around us is just as shameable as we are. Maybe privacy is not license to think and do in secret, but to think and do free from judgment. Maybe privacy is not in the hiding from others, but in the decisions of others not to seek. And for those who persist in seeking, there is the promise of reciprocal curiosity.