In the twenty-first century, the privacy of individuals, groups and institutions is continually being tested, by a variety of forces that seem determined to undermine it. Computer hackers threaten to uncover the most personal details about our lives. Reports of phone-hacking journalists preying on the parents of kidnapped children remind us that not even the right to grieve privately can be taken for granted anymore. Most of us have become so used to being monitored by CCTV cameras and digital technology that even recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) activities did not cause much of a stir.
What is most striking about contemporary Western society’s attitude towards privacy is that episodic expressions of outrage about the violation of privacy in some areas of life coexist with a casual acceptance of such violations in other spheres. In fact, there are as many calls to limit or weaken the private realm as there are to defend it. Modern Western culture is deeply ambivalent about the question of privacy.
This month, the Observer columnist Henry Porter wrote an article headlined ‘Perhaps I’m out of step and Britons just don’t think privacy is important’. He was addressing what he considered to be the ‘complacency’ over the revelations of mass snooping by the NSA. Yet in the very same issue of the Observer, a report titled ‘Hundreds of thousands of elderly people were abused last year’ claimed to be exposing a ‘hidden national scandal’. That news article’s association of abuse with the spheres of life that are ‘hidden’ from public view - that is, its coupling of abuse and privacy - expressed a view that is widely held in society today. Is it any surprise that when the private sphere is looked upon so ambiguously, as being fraught with dangers, there will be little outrage when it is interfered with by external forces?
Our attitude towards the distinction between private and public life is influenced by what society values. As Jeff Weintraub has pointed out, ‘debates about how to cut up the social world between public and private are rarely innocent exercises, since they often carry powerful normative implications’. For example, the frequently repeated argument that the innocent have nothing to fear from the prying eyes of Big Brother reveals how little value we attach to the idea of having protected private spaces these days. In contrast, the older phrase ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ expressed a contrasting sentiment that idealised private space.
In this essay, I put forward an argument for valuing privacy, and then go on to explore the main forces that threaten it in the contemporary period.
The need for privacy
The ideal of separating social life into distinct public and private spheres is in many ways an historical accomplishment of modernity. However, there is considerable evidence in much earlier eras of an aspiration to be ‘left alone’ and to limit the involvement of the state in people’s private lives. In his famous 431 BC funeral speech, where he celebrated the greatness of Athens, Pericles boasted: ‘The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens.’
No doubt the freedom to do what one liked in ‘ordinary life’ was severely limited by the realities of life in that ancient city-state. However, Pericles’ affirmation of the freedom of the private sphere suggests that privacy was valued by the citizens of Athens.
But it wasn’t until the rise of capitalism and modern society in Europe that arguments for maintaining a dichotomous divide between the public and private spheres were made seriously and rigorously. The advocates of liberalism forcefully promoted the idea of a protected private sphere, insisting that what happened in the household was not a matter for state intervention. Since the sixteenth century, arguments for privacy have been made in a variety of ways. Early claims for privacy tended to couple the private sphere with property and with a defence of individual conscience. Over the past two centuries, the case for the private sphere evolved and started to be justified on moral, psychological and political grounds.
A useful working definition of privacy is provided by Alan Westin in his study, Privacy and Freedom: ‘Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and of what extent information about them is communicated to others.’ This definition focuses on the need of individuals to establish a balance between their aspiration for privacy and their desire for disclosure and communication. Historically, demands for privacy were motivated by a determination to curtail the power of the state to intrude into the private activities of citizens. Today, this concern with restraining state intervention into private life is still around, and important; but in the main, the argument for privacy is increasingly focused on the psychological and moral need for a retreat from the busy public world so that people can insulate themselves from the immediacy of outside pressures.
According to Westin, privacy has four important functions for individuals. The first, and arguably the most important, is that it allows us to quest for personal autonomy. Indeed, an individual’s distinct qualities, his personality itself, can only be cultivated in a sphere of privacy. The development of individuality and autonomy ‘requires time for sheltered experimentation and testing of ideas, for preparation and practice in thought and conduct without fear of ridicule or penalty, and for the opportunity to alter opinions before making them public’, says Westin. The ability to ‘go public’ at all, to play an effective role as a citizen, presupposes that there is a private sphere, a place where a sense of independence can be cultivated and a measure of autonomy gained.
Privacy is also an important medium for emotional release. The intensity and uncertainty of modern life lead to a situation where privacy is ‘required from the pressure of playing social roles’, says Westin. Constant exposure to conflicting social demands would be unbearable if people could not move off-stage, into a private sphere, and drop their social mask in order to try to be themselves. Privacy provides a space where people can deviate from, even violate, some of the prevailing social norms. And of course, privacy gives us the space to manage bodily and sexual functions and behaviour without being monitored.
The third important function of privacy is that it gives us a space for self-evaluation. Through self-evaluation, individuals are able to reflect on and give meaning to their experiences. Self-evaluation can only be conducted in privacy. Westin argues that this ‘evaluative function of privacy’ has a ‘major moral dimension’, as it allows for the ‘exercise of conscience’ through which the individual ‘repossesses himself’.
And finally, privacy allows for limited and protected forms of communication. Limited communication is essential for harmony and for the stability of social interaction. Total openness in communication, the exposure of every thought, expression and email to the world, would create confusion and conflict. Privacy allows for the sharing of confidences which can help to consolidate friendships and intimate relationships. Limited communication sets boundaries between intimate and public social situations. Limited or protected communication is also necessary for our relationships with professionals who offer us advice. It is presumed that doctors, lawyers and priests, for example, should be prohibited from publicly disclosing our relationships with them. Privacy is required to ensure that other people’s knowledge of our pain and distress cannot be used against us, perhaps by people who have become aware of our vulnerabilities.
A tolerant state respects the distinction between public and private spheres, because it recognises that freedom depends on people’s ability to expose parts of their identity in some contexts and to conceal parts of their identity in other contexts. Privacy and protected communication are prerequisites for forging the close bonds and ties through which we establish relations of intimate trust. Privacy, in allowing us to reveal parts of ourselves to friends, family members or lovers that we withhold from the rest of the world, is the medium in which we consolidate our intimate relationships. Privacy is the precondition for friendship and the cultivation of love. From this perspective, privacy should not be interpreted as either good or bad, but as necessary.
There must be a domain of life that is distinct from the public world, from public life. Liberal theory has as its premise a belief that it is not only desirable but also necessary that individuals are able to have a life that is separate to the one they conduct as public citizens. It was believed that without a private sphere, it would be very difficult to contain the totalising dynamic of state activity. We would see the subjection of individual pursuits to a bureaucratic imperative, which would in turn lead to the politicisation every aspect of human existence. Such a development would not only diminish personal autonomy - it would also disorient public life itself; it would hamper the pursuit of the common good since we would be denying individuals the sphere in which they develop their personalities and in the process prepare for public engagement. Historical experience shows us that whenever the state seeks to politicise private life – for example, during the Cultural Revolution in China – public life in turn becomes depoliticised.
So, protecting the private realm is essential if we want to have a healthy public life. Privacy is essential if people are to nurture their ability to make something of themselves. It is within the confines of the private realm that people can think, reflect, test out new ideas and thoughts on their intimates, develop their political capacities, and acquire the moral resources that are absolutely essential for conducting a serious public life.
The assault on privacy
Privacy is rarely explicitly targeted by political invective and moral condemnation today – but it is nonetheless under constant, if sometimes implicit assault from a variety of sources. Society’s periodic rhetorical affirmation of the right to privacy is continually paralleled by a denigration of privacy in practical terms. The threat to privacy that is most talked about today is that posed by technology, and how our increasingly computerised, online world allows people’s private lives and affairs to be made public. Yet while it is true that technologically assisted surveillance and monitoring threatens people’s privacy, it isn’t the case that technology by itself has undermined the moral status and standing of privacy. That has been achieved by larger, more complicated factors.
Technological invasions of private life always provoke more outrage than other assaults on privacy. Yet the main threat to privacy today actually has little to with the usual suspects who are wheeled out by modern defenders of privacy, such as tech, the internet, business and government surveillance, or intrusive tabloid journalism. No, the real danger facing privacy comes from powerful cultural forces that both implicitly and explicitly devalue, demoralise and at times even pathologise the private sphere and the aspiration to inhabit it.
By far the most powerful driver of the anti-privacy outlook today is the tendency to depict family and intimate life as sites of abuse, exploitation and violence. The increasingly popular narrative of ‘the dark side of family life’ invokes a sense of dread about people’s private and invisible relations. Policymakers and various moral entrepreneurs have led the charge for more public scrutiny of people’s apparently dark private lives. Cultural feminists in particular have launched a trenchant critique of privacy. Some claim that in the private sphere women are rendered invisible; their work is unrecognised and therefore devalued, and their lives becomes subject to male violence. The view that the private sphere is an intensely dangerous place, especially for women and children, has become an unquestioned truth in popular culture. Hence, we have seen the introduction of intrusive policies to open up private life to the public gaze. The claim that only vigilant public institutions can protect children from adult predators is widely promoted by moral crusaders and their friends in officialdom. Indeed, the need to protect children from ‘dangerous’ adults has become one of the key arguments against any demand to preserve the autonomy of the private sphere.
Privacy is frequently described as a ‘cloak’ or a ‘sham’ that allows unspeakable horrors to take place in family life. This assumes that, left to their own devices and away from public view, people will find themselves dominated by destructive emotions. Men in particular are condemned for using the privilege of privacy to terrorise women and children. This unflattering reading of intimate relationships promotes the idea that everyone is under threat from imminent victimisation. From this standpoint, privacy has no redeeming features at all. On the contrary, for some, particularly feminists, intimacy is by definition a relationship of violence.
In recent years, thanks to various moral entrepreneurs, human relationships have come to be seen as territory fraught with danger. And consequently, a veritable army of relationship professionals – therapists, counsellors, life coaches, parenting gurus – is continually warning people about the perils they apparently face in their private lives. Relationship professionals constantly frighten us about our connections with members of our communities, our neighbours, our lovers, our family members, all of whom apparently pose a threat to our mental and possibly our physical wellbeing. It is striking how, in the contemporary period, the most high-profile dreaded crimes, which dominate scary news reports and culture, are the ones most associated with interpersonal relationships: rape, date rape, child abuse, elder abuse, bullying, stalking – all these talked-up offline and online crimes remind us to beware those closest to us. Privacy used to be seen as a haven from a heartless world. These days, intimacy and family life are depicted as sites of violence, danger and emotional trauma.
Warnings about toxic relationships and toxic families compete with warnings about terrorism or the environment in the attempt to frighten individuals. Their effect is to disorganise and pathologise private life.
This disorganisation of private life is reinforced by the therapeutic turn in Western culture in recent years. The therapeutic outlook calls into question the ideal of personal autonomy. It demands that people open up and share their problems with others, particularly with therapeutic professionals. From this perspective, personal secrets are seen as markers for some kind of emotional deficit. Indeed, having private secrets is now treated by some people as a precursor to criminal behaviour. In popular culture, the statement ‘this is our secret’ is regularly presented as a prelude to some act of abuse.
Today, those who have a private life, who have ‘secrets’, are seen as strange, maybe even dangerous. On TV confessional shows, a net of suspicion is cast over those who show reserve and discretion. In turn, this therapeutic TV and hundreds of other ‘reality’ programmes foster a climate in which voyeurism comes to be equated with responsible behaviour. Is it any surprise that a growing number of people, especially among the young, are prepared to disclose intimate details of their lives to strangers, online and offline?
There is little doubt that private life can sometimes be unpleasant, violent, degrading. Yes, privacy can provide a space for the exercise of destructive behaviour. But the fact that private life has some negative aspects does not add up to a coherent argument for eradicating the private sphere altogether, any more than the existence of street crime is an argument for eliminating the public sphere. Today’s casual dismissal of the private sphere denigrates one of the most important areas of human life and experience. The separation of the public and private spheres has been essential for the emergence of the modern individual. People’s aspiration to autonomy and identity cannot be entirely resolved in the public sphere. The private sphere not only provides a potential space for reflection, but also for the development of personality. Intimate relationships require privacy if they are not to disintegrate under the pressure of public scrutiny. Whatever problems might exist in the private sphere, having such a sphere is the prerequisite for the exercise of meaningful freedom.
Frank Furedi’s new book, Authority: A Sociological History, is published by Cambridge University Press. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas debate ‘Is nothing private anymore?’, in London in October on Saturday 19 October. Read the full schedule here.
Published by spiked