We live in the most privacy-obsessed era in history. Yet our belief in the secrecy of private information exists alongside a frenzy of flagrant exhibitionism.
While some people guard their privacy closely, many others reveal their personal lives to the world on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and other vehicles of narcissism. Government bureaucrats, when not prosecuting innocent writers for criticizing Islamic radicals, spend their time trying to keep everybody's life secret. Meanwhile, obsessive bloggers post every detail of their existence on the Web.
This amazing contradiction goes mainly unmentioned, perhaps because no one can explain it.
Consider the position of Ontario employers trying to obey the human rights code. Naturally, they can't ask potential employees about race, religion or sexual orientation--but that's just the start. Even education can be a delicate topic. Rhonda Shirreff, a lawyer specializing in employment at the firm of Heenan Blaikie, wrote recently that "Requiring candidates to provide details about the years they attended school or the name of the school itself could reveal the candidate's age, religious affiliation and place of origin."
And, of course, you can never, ever ask a potential employee if they've had trouble with the cops. (This may explain why pedophiles keep getting hired by school boards.) You can ask only one question: "Have you ever been convicted of a Criminal Code offence for which a pardon has not been granted?"
Laws such as Ontario's now exist in every democratic jurisdiction. The concept of privacy as a legal right began in 1890 with a famous essay by two distinguished American lawyers, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Dennis Warren. They defined a citizen's "right to be let alone" by newspapers and government; they also pointed toward the idea of privacy as the right of individuals to control information about themselves.
In recent times, laws have been increasingly tightened. Every kind of professional must now obtain permission to pass on even the most innocuous information about a citizen. As systems for storing and retrieving information have grown more sophisticated, lawmakers have tried to bring them under control, though not with great success.
Those anxious to protect privacy often begin with Aristotle's sharp distinction between the public sphere of politics and the private sphere of the family, arguing that the latter deserves to be shielded. Where does that leave John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic candidate for U. S. vice-president, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the 2008 presidential nomination? Since he's no longer a candidate for office, was it not unfair for journalists to reveal his adulterous love affair last week? Shouldn't he have been left in peace to heal his wounds with his family?
Unfortunately, families are now part of politics. The Edwards campaign portrayed him, in lavish detail, as a father and a loyal husband supporting his cancer-afflicted wife. Edwards, not the media, made his private domain public. As judges on TV are always saying, "You opened that door, counsellor."
Michael Kinsley of The Los Angeles Times argues that the media co-operated with Edwards' spin doctors in making his family's poignant story into one of the best-known narratives of the 2007-08 Democratic nomination campaign. Kinsley argues that if the story about Edwards "loyally standing by his loyal wife as she deals with cancer" were untrue, as we now know, then the media were honour-bound to run a correction. As he wrote, "Look at the things they run corrections over -- the spelling of people's names, and so on." How could they possibly have left this huge story uncorrected, and their readers misinformed?
When we consider the general question of privacy, our society looks like two distinct armies, marching in opposite directions. But perhaps they aren't different armies at all. In a more subtle light, we can understand the contemporary version of privacy as yet another new human right, like one of the many already granted generously (if ineffectively) by the United Nations.
The citizens of the 21st century want the absolute right to keep their private lives secret and at the same time the absolute right to display those same private lives, if they choose, to the largest worldwide audience the Web can provide.
What's desired, in other words, is the privilege of defining ourselves precisely in our own terms.
That's not remotely possible, given the cameras and computers designed to track every move we make. Still, we want it. We will claim it as our natural right. We will, if necessary, appoint commissions to enforce it -- and we will whine forever because the world, in its notoriously unfair way, has failed to grant it.