The Primacy of Privacy
People forget, in an age of promotion, self-promotion, publicity, advertising, the internet, and social media, that personal privacy is essential not only to civility but to civilization. Today, as never before in history, the maintenance of privacy depends on the moral fortitude to resist intrusion by others and the self-restraint and tact not to intrude on them.
In Third World societies, as in poor ones generally, privacy is compromised by squalor, crowding, and poverty. In the Western world, privacy’s enemies are democratic society and mass communications— the electronic kind, especially. Democratic mores demand that we should all be equally receptive, all of the time, to advances made to us by anyone, total strangers included, and ready and willing to “communicate” with him on any subject he chooses. An uncooperative response is frequently resented and may provoke angry replies and even abuse, as I discovered some months ago when I wrote asking to be unsubscribed from a dozen or more websites, none of whose e-mails had been solicited. (One source questioned my patriotism, and another replied that it was good riddance, no one needs Catholics for anything.) So far I’ve yet to receive hostile responses from people whose invitations I’ve ignored to be their “friends” on Facebook—I suppose because the request implies a certain level of friendly acquaintanceship to begin with. The invitation includes no option that would allow me to explain politely why I am declining the offer (because I have the e-mail addresses of these people in my computer, and if I happen to have anything of interest to communicate to one of them, I expect to do it by a private message addressed to a single person). Meanwhile, I cannot imagine having anything to say to anybody that I should wish to say to everybody. The round-robin format may a useful one in business and politics, but it is entirely unsuited to personal communication. For one thing, my friends and acquaintances belong to widely dissimilar and even mutually antagonistic circles, and most of them have little or nothing in common with one another, beyond their acquaintance with me. For another, I understand that members of Facebook have the deplorable habit of firing off messages every quarter of an hour or so with the breathtaking news that they have just fertilized their vegetable garden, or are in the middle of watching a cooking show, or that their child has just earned an A+ for his homework assignment from his Social Studies teacher. The readers of any one of these electronic missives, I gather, number in the hundreds. The principle behind this form of communication is that of the national broadcast networks, which are credited with informing on a daily basis hundreds of millions of people of what they supposedly need to know about what is going on in the world. It is impossible, of course, to “communicate” anything of significance or even coherence to those millions. The message I can conceive of sending round to 300 people could only be of the most trivial and banal kind.
“Am typing page 234 of my new novel.”
“Just back from rehearsing Bach’s B-minor Mass, where I brought in a violinist to back up the pianist and me. The three of us sounded fabulous!!!”
“Siena the cat has bladder stones and we’re about to spend $1,190 on surgery.”
“I’m mixing martinis ahead of the debate tonight. Maureen likes gin martinis; I like them with vodka as well as gin.”
“Rather than vote for Romney, I’ve decided not to vote at all.”
“My hay fever is terrible this morning—must have forgotten to take a Cetirizine pill last night.”
“M. baked an apple pie today using the apples a friend at the office gave her.”
As my friends and I used to say when we were about 16, “That’s more information than I needed to know.”
Nine decades of Madison Avenue have made people nonresistant to having their attention seized, almost forcibly, and their privacy invaded by hucksters, frauds, demagogues, busybodies, and presumptuous bores. I read several years ago that most of us enjoy being advertised to, and I’m willing to concede it must be so, else businesses and their agencies wouldn’t throw good money after bad doing it. (I myself ignore virtually all print ads, excepting the ones— for Bergdorf or Cartier or Saks Fifth Avenue— that show beautiful women beautifully dressed, and then everything but the girl herself, including the clothes, the price, and the department store, go out the window.)
All this seems to be headed unswervingly and at breakneck speed in the direction of a world that either rejects privacy as a good or has no idea any such thing exists in the first place. Yet the tendency has inevitable implications for the future of democratic societies and democratic governments, to which a sense of, and a preference for, privacy is essential. The pervasive desire in postmodern modern societies, to know everything about everybody right now, obviously threatens free societies and institutions. In tyrannous and totalitarian societies, their so-called citizens are encouraged to learn all they can about their friends, family, and neighbors for the purpose of being able to inform on them to the authorities. Privacy supports individual human dignity of a sort that the residents of a tent city in Haiti cannot know or even imagine, and also political freedom as it is promoted by the secret ballot. And privacy encourages an assurance of personal inviolability that can neither be breached from the outside, nor betrayed from within. “Friends,” Thoreau said, “will be much apart. They will respect more each other’s privacy than their communion.” Justice Brandeis praised “The right to be alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.” And Talleyrand maintained that “The private life of a citizen must be within walls.” Those walls can be built, of course, either by the citizen himself or by the ruler. Privacy builds the wall in the first instance. The government is quite capable of accomplishing the job for him in the second.
Every totalitarian state has sought to break down the sense of privacy, and hence the awareness of individuality, its citizens possess by nature. It is the same technique that modern armies (but not those before the mass societies of the 20th century) use to transform hundreds of thousands of people housed together in communal barracks into a single unindividuated fighting machine in which esprit de corps replaces the proud self-awareness of individual, differentiated souls. One description of mass society is a society in which everybody is doing and thinking the same thing, at the same time, and in full view of everybody else. I might add that it is also a society obsessed with trivia and the minutiae of everyday life. Privacy, on the other hand, encourages the independence of mind, and of action, that democratic peoples and institutions require.
Electronics is making truly private conversation (and even true conversation itself) between individuals harder to maintain. At the same time, the internet denies to national cultures the possibility of national conversation in “private,” so to speak—quietly, among themselves, and off the international record. The violation of national privacies has already had major destructive consequences for international relations, and it foreshadows truly catastrophic and endlessly recurrent ones in the future. If Europeans cannot conduct free, frank, and relaxed discussions among themselves on such subjects as the merits and demerits of the Mohammedan religion, or scholarship pertaining to Muslim history, philosophy, and art and architecture without thin-skinned or fanatical Muslims in Indonesia or Egypt listening in, ready to reach for their guns and their firebombs at the slightest imagined provocation, any semblance of international peace and comity will be impossible. And it is the internet that made possible the recent attacks on diplomatic discretion, secrecy, and international security by Julian Assange and his associates hacking, cutting, pasting, and disseminating classified documents of state from their computers to newspapers and websites around the world. The havoc that the instant communication of anything and everything, no matter how innocuous at face value, can create around the world is boundless. Who can say how and when: The next international outburst could occur when a group of Muslim housewives in Islamabad inspires a chain of riots across the Islamic countries after watching the hostess of an American cooking show prepare a pork roast, with a bottle or two of Burgundy standing by. Just as it is possible for individuals to know too much about each other, so, too, is it possible for civilizations. The age-old dream of fools in which they wake some morning with the glorious preternatural ability to read other people’s minds is actually being realized today at the international level, as the internet enables nations to penetrate one another’s souls. That way lies the road to hell, as should be plain to anyone not steeped in the liberal assumptions of the past 400 years—in particular, the assumption that the greater the contact and communication achieved among individuals and nations, the better for the human race. It has always been an axiom of liberal internationalists and one-worlders that to meet the other is to disarm both yourself and him, and that to know him is to embrace him finally as your brother. T.S. Eliot thought it better, on balance, for the majority of people to remain all their lives in the place of their birth. His observation seems applicable to the desirability of millions of keyboardists roaming far and wide throughout the world by electronic extension— virtual tourism. Travel is said to be broadening, yet one wonders. A DVM I know in Laramie took his family abroad two summers ago. They visited London, Paris, Rome, and a Swiss city. His report of their journey was devastating: London was filthy, and Paris, where his daughter caught bed bugs, worse, while Rome was dirtier still and filled with beggars and foreigners who didn’t speak a word of English. (He appreciated the cleanliness of Switzerland, however.) Clearly, it would have been better for the DVM (and for the reputation of Western Europe) had he remained at home in Wyoming. And liberals prate about the virtues of international exchange programs in promoting an interconnected world. Well, we are all of us interconnected now, and a lot of good it has done us. The results so far include paralyzed cerebra and flaccid, desk-bound muscles at home, and hatred, mayhem, bloodshed, massacres, and full-blown war abroad.