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Privacy: It’s not just about you

Is it selfish to care about privacy rights? In fact, the public sphere depends on it.

Earth Photography

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of
community.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From the provisions of the Patriot Act to the pronouncements of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, our right to privacy is continually in the news and increasingly under attack. It is also under suspicion. Given the other issues pressing upon us—an ailing economy, a terrorist threat, a warming planet—should we be spending so much time on this one? In its current session alone, the Supreme Court has heard no fewer than three privacy-related cases. Isn’t all this concern over “my privacy” a bit selfish?

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One can only hope so. If we don’t have a right to some “selfishness”—some claim to our bodies, our personal information, and our decisional autonomy—then what exactly is the point of being unselfish? If human beings are such nonentities, who cares about their economy or their health? We might as well leave altruism to the ants.

But to stop there is to risk demeaning privacy in the very act of defending it. Privacy is about much more than the protection of human selfhood. It is every bit as much about our obligations to other human beings. Like the rest of our rights, its existence depends on our social contract. What is more, just about everything we might call “social” depends on holding privacy in esteem.

Legal experts have long recognized that privacy protects more than solitude. Constitutional scholar Kenneth L. Karst speaks of privacy as protecting our “freedom of intimate association,” our ability to consort with people of our own choosing. In other words, privacy doesn’t just protect our right to withdraw from others; it also protects our first tentative steps toward engagement with others. When I’m with a trusted friend, I can speak my mind, which in turn might help me shape my thoughts for a larger audience. That’s an altogether different scenario from having some self-appointed leader tell me that “we’re all friends here” and have “nothing to hide.” In a situation of such ostentatious “openness,” most of us are going to clam up. Any openness mostly has to do with the leader’s mouth.

Of course, no one gets this better than the person holding the whip. In a situation lacking privacy, there’s no place to escape, surely one reason why totalitarian regimes and abusive households both hold privacy suspect. And when privacy is suspect, it’s only a matter of time before the inmates hold one another suspect—good news for a dictator. Writing on democracy and its risks, Alexis de Tocqueville observes that “a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another.”

Which they are not likely to do in an atmosphere of compulsive “over-sharing.” Privacy is about more than protecting my person and “my junk” from the prying eyes of other people. It also has to do with protecting others from my own aggressive self-expression. I pull the shade when I use the bathroom not only because I want to do my business there unobserved but also because I care enough about my neighbor to consider that the sight of me soaping my armpits might not be his idea of waking up to a Chelsea morning.

In a situation lacking privacy, there’s no place to escape, surely one reason why totalitarian regimes and abusive households both hold privacy suspect.

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In an essay called “A Bachelor’s Complaint,” Charles Lamb complains about the “pure, unrecompensed, unqualified insult” of married couples’ behavior in the company of their single friends. Husbands and wives “perk up” their affections for each other, Lamb writes, “in the faces of us single people so shamelessly.” He does not fault his married friends for a want of modesty. He faults them for a want of sensitivity to the “uneasy feeling we derive from knowing ourselves to be less the object of love...than some other person is.” In his view, surrendering one’s privacy amounts to an antisocial act.

Lamb is hinting at an interesting paradox. When a social occasion becomes utterly bereft of privacy, it ceases to be social. At the least it ceases to be pleasurable. To understand that, one need only go to a movie. It is each person’s private involvement with the film that allows for any collective enjoyment. We all hear the joke—individually—and we all laugh—together. But if everyone forfeits the option for a private thought or a whispered comment by shouting everything that enters his or her head—that is to say, if there is no such thing as privacy—then there is no meaningful public experience either.

This is because public and private support each other. Our right to privacy is grounded in our social contract. In an absence of courts, constitutions, and custom, I have no such right. At best, what I may have is a privilege maintained through wealth or violence. My home is my castle; your home is the transparent hovel under my battlements. Occasionally I might step out onto those battlements to proclaim that “privacy is dead” and you need to “get over it.”

The mutuality of public and private reveals itself in countless biographies. Think of the public figures you’ve admired most, whether Ronald Reagan or Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa or Václav Havel, Thomas Jefferson or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and you will often name persons who insisted not only on living a private life but also in maintaining a reserve that could baffle even their closest associates. Or think of acquaintances whose private lives have struck you as especially rich. Weren’t most of them equally rich in their contributions to public life? And wasn’t it precisely because they allowed themselves the “selfishness” of some privacy that they were able to act among others without turning every interaction into a self-centered psychodrama?

Whenever we hear that “privacy is under attack,” our thoughts naturally tend toward the evolution of digital surveillance. We might just as naturally think of the degradation of public discourse. The reduction of public debate to personal attack ad leads easily enough to the dismissal of privacy as an antique right. No one seems to listen to anyone else—and, not surprisingly, to care all that much about preserving the sanctity of private conversation. We “share” it or “post” it, supposedly because it would be selfish to do otherwise, but possibly because we’re not sure it’s worth all that much anyway.

We could not be more wrong. Democracy depends for its continuance on the conspiratorial intimacies of private lives and intimate friendships. The American Revolution was made from ale and sealing wax as much as from powder and shot. “Liberty and justice for all” depends on privacy for all. It depends on a protected sphere in which people can be themselves fully enough to appreciate other selves.

It also depends on locating some common ground between opposing factions. Regarding “principles,” Dr. Johnson said, “a wise Tory and a wise Whig, I believe, will agree.” Washed ashore naked on a desert island, conservatives and liberals might find that they agreed on a few basic principles: first, that they were the same creatures under their clothes; and second, that they’d like to put on a few clothes. In acknowledging their mutual need for privacy, they could not afford to be selfish for very long, or self-righteous for even a minute.

Garret Keizer is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and the author of “Privacy” (Picador, 2012).
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