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The Treasure That Is Privacy

Posted on 19 mins read

The Philosophy of Privacy Extremism emphasizes that privacy should be maintained in all situations; that if in question, privacy should be given preference, unless sufficient arguments to the contrary apply to the specific situation.

Privacy serves as a necessary condition for engaging in meaningful and truthful interpersonal relationships.

Furthermore privacy is a necessary condition under which a person can develop a self and embrace individual responsibility for decisions and actions that result from them.

A denial of privacy to the contrary establishes and maintains a lack and loss of esteem, respect and value in and for things and other persons.

Privacy should therefor be the strong standard for personal behavior, normative for those that thrive towards personal human positive development.

The Treasure which is Privacy

The first response to someone who makes an effort to protect his privacy is often “I have nothing to hide because I have nothing to fear” - usually accompanied by an expression of righteous pride or the blissful presentation of carelessness.

As with most routine responses that have become maxims of contemporary society and proverbs uttered in reply to trigger words, this statement is more informative about the speaker than of the addressee or the subject of discussion.

More often than not its underlying meaning should be rephrased to read “I am uneasy, maybe even afraid, around people that hide something”. As such it carries the implied request to anyone hearing it, that they shall stop covering and hiding things to relieve the speaker of his uneasiness.

But even when taken at face value, above sentence communicates that it is the lack of fear that is the speakers justification for not protecting his privacy. Apart from the simple rejection of this statement as being false in the light of existing and relevant threats and the reference to the blissfulness of ignorance, it is the exclusiveness of fear as the proposed reason for privacy that warrants consideration.

The reference to fear in this context should first be understood as an instrument of rhetorics instead of an adequate choice of words in a balanced and clearheaded reasoning. Fear refers to the emotional response to existential danger and implies the lack or loss of courage to confront the danger. The sentence under analysis should thus be rephrased to read “You hide things because you lack courage in the presence of an imagined existential threat.” It is therefor a double accusation of both cowardice and delusion.

Again it is not the focus of this analysis to show that protection of privacy and admitting to doing so requires a bit more courage than to repeat common proverbs, or that certain dangers exist that can be effectively answered by privacy. Nor does it need emphasis that those who protect the privacy of others often do so in the face of opponents that go a long way to ruin the names, property, freedom and sometimes even health and life of those courageous guards of privacy.

Instead it should be pointed out, that there are for more reasons to protect ones privacy, and that of others, than fear of losing freedom or life or even good reputation.

It is interesting to note that an old synonym for ‘fear’ could e awe, admiration or astonishment, even respect. Worded this way, one might read above sentence as “I hide nothing, because I admire and respect nothing.” This way it becomes clear that the denial of privacy is often nothing but a lack of things that are valued and the demand that others should not value something themselves. It thus contains the claim that nothing should be special and set apart.

Which brings us to the original meaning of the word ‘private’. In Latin it refers to persons and things that were set apart from what would be available, subordinate and used by all persons - the public.

Thus giving up one’s privacy, as in the sentence we discuss, entails nothing else but the transformation of the speaker into a not particularly important and indistinguishable fragment of the mass. If the speaker is really not in fear about anything, it would primarily refer to not fearing to become a nothingness in the grey mass - just a grain of dust in the crowd. It is safe to say then, that the speaker does not value and respect himself as an individual human person, or that he cowardly fears to be recognized as such.

Leaving the analysis of the original statement one should now focus on the negation of the privacy opponent’s reply while keeping its completed meaning in mind: “Because I value and respect some things, I hide some things.”

Three areas shall serve as examples of preserving value through hiding: Complex minority opinions, relationships between persons, and the human person itself.

Complex opinions and bodies of knowledge that are valued highly by their bearers are often only communicated under strict conditions to prevent misunderstanding, misrepresentation, confusion and disintegration. This is especially useful if the opinion is only held by a minority or if the potential audience lacks the necessary context of knowledge to integrate and consider the new information. The strict conditions under which the information will be communicated serves herein as the boundary between public and private. The more complex, valuable and different from general knowledge the new information is, the stricter the conditions of communicating them becomes. This can be seen in various areas. Personal political or moral opinions, especially if they are held only by a minority, will often not be communicated in situations that only allow superficial or time restrained conversation. These situations do not allow for the speaker to present and argue for their position and thus risk for the information to be misunderstood and misrepresented later. The consequences of this disintegration of information can be witnessed in the effects of hearsay that considers itself with minority groups and opinions, leading to widespread false myths that often cannot be corrected afterwards because they have become part of common knowledge. Thus it is often favorable to conceal personal opinion and deprive the public of correct information if otherwise the reinforcement of false information or the support of slander are likely. The quality of public and political debate as well as the celebrity and gossip culture serve as evidence for this. Numerous further examples about the protection of ideas through hiding exist in history and shall only be mentioned for further reference: Pythagorism and Platonism, the Apologists of early Christianity, the Orthodox Church liturgy, natural science and political societies of the Enlightenment including Bacon and Newton as members, Judaism, early Socialism. Privacy in this regard serves to preserve the integrity, and often survival, of information, ideas and opinions.

Another area of interest is privacy and the use of hiding for the sake of other persons. To understand what role privacy plays in the context of relationships between humans it is necessary to be aware of what communication is. Communication is any act of a sender to convey information to a receiver. This involves forming signs - distinguishable and perceivable features - into signals - the message to be transmitted. The choice of signs and signals by the sender and their interpretation by the receiver depend strongly on the context, what both parties perceive about each other, themselves and their environment. Another part of this context is the estimation of how difficult a sign is to be produced which has an influence on as how truthful and intentional a signal (message) is perceived. A proverbial example for this is “to preach water and drink wine”. One immediately understands that abstaining form wine - which is more costly than to consume it - increases the credibility of the message (and resolves the otherwise apparent contradiction). Maintaining privacy, in its various forms of hiding, concealing and silence, is such an act of communication, a sign that carries a signal. The sign of privacy, as it shall be called for sake of clarity, can carry a variety of signals that depend on the context of the communication, and it can be intended for a variety of recipients.

In itself privacy is a signal that discriminates between various degrees of relationships, excluding some potential receivers from other intended receivers. It is thus communicating which kinds of relationship the sender intends to have, which in turn communicates the evaluation of the receiver by the sender. In blunt words, it separates the receivers into special and common people in the eyes of the sender.

The “hijab” is an example which illustrates this well. Hijab refers to a veil worn by many muslim women as soon as they enter marriageable age. It is always worn in public and only taken off if no non-related men are present, such as in exclusively female meetings or in the family circle. Her husband will be the only non-related man that will see her hair, thus keeping her hair private. The woman, if she chooses to wear the hijab, hereby communicates towards her husband and all other men, that she chooses to have an exclusive intimate relationship only with her husband and that she values her husband as being of a special high value to her. It is a pledge of allegiance to her husband, and a separation of herself from the availability to other men. As can be seen in this example, hiding becomes a tool to communicate a value perception and status of relationship in a discriminatory way.

Similar signs exist in western cultures as well. For example, the revelation of the family’s secret receipt towards the fiancee of a child serves as sign of acceptance and inclusion into the family. Similarly some topics of conversation are usually preserved for the close relationship between couples, or that of good friends. This not only is a sign of uptightness, if at all, but also a toll to show and maintain the deepness of a special and exclusive relationship that is built on the mutual holding of the other in high esteem. The opposite, divulging information indiscriminately, thus communicates that others are not held in high esteem and that the communicating party is unwilling or unable to come to different evaluations of others. Likewise the sharing of information with the public, if this information was gained within a special relationship, should rightly be viewed as an act of betrayal since it communicates that the thus damaged person is held in lower regard than the receiving masses, even as assured of the opposite.

This hints at the reciprocity of these intimate relationships. Communicating information, that is viewed as belonging in the private domain of friendship or other kinds of deep and special relationship, will also signal to the receiver that he should answer in an equally private manner as to return the esteem granted to him as well as to save the speaker from embarrassment. It is thus a matter of courtesy to not speak about private matters indiscriminately since it puts the receiver into a potentially awkward situation. However, this does not only apply to situations that imply reciprocity. It speaks of equal disrespect of another person to make them part of an unasked for communication of subjects that are hurtful, unpleasant or put the recipient into a situation where he is challenged to act - if only to escape his status of a recipient. Instead, a communication that considers the reaction of others by using means of privacy signals both intended and accidental recipients that the speaker harbors respect for them. This is even more true when the subject constitutes a tempting or harmful one for the recipient. It shows utter disrespect if someone speaks of the exquisite taste and warm feeling in the throat when drinking an alcoholic beverage while a known dry alcoholic is addressed or present. It is as unwise to flaunt with riches and have them lay around openly in the house since this tempts the struggling housekeeper to steal out of impulse, or to communicate without regard for potentially causing conflicts of interests in the recipients. Instead of hiding nothing, it is the hiding of information and actions that is grounded in valuing and caring for others and truthfully communicating respect and high esteem.

To conclude the use of privacy for the sake of others, one should also consider the effects of actions on observers. As mentioned before, the interpretation of signs as signals depends, among other things, on the receiver’s perception of the sender. This becomes relevant for the question of privacy especially if the sender is perceived as a role model or bad example. Here the behavior is a sign easily interpreted by the observer as sanctioning of the action or its proscription if the action is not considered separately from the sender. Examples of this can be seen when bad actions of public figures are used as justification for one’s own actions, when otherwise laudable behavior is viewed with suspicion when associated with persons of disgrace or when people imitate celebrities even in their failures and bad judgement. For additional consideration on privacy for the sake of others, an old book shall be mentioned as reference: “Ueber den Umgang mit Menschen” by Freiherr von Knigge.

The last area to examine here as an example of preserving value through hiding is the human person itself. At the core of this matter lies the question of what makes a person a “self” instead of “an-other”, and how this self can refer to itself over time as in “I myself went to the park yesterday”. What is this “I” or “self” we refer to, and how does it come to be what it is instead of being something else. There is no current consensus how to answer these questions, nor should it be the task of this text to present and weigh the different views, nor to fully develop a theory of personhood on its own.

Instead it will touch the process of the change of a person. How has a person become what it is now, and how will it become what it will be in the future? How does the process differentiate the self from another?

The popular answer is that genes, upbringing and society are the shapers of persons, in different proportions depending on who one asks. Nevertheless individuals are treated as moral agents, acting by decision and responsible for the decisions made. It is a person who is punished for a crime, and not schools, parents, evolution or society. It is persons that are persuaded by others, asked to consider moral and ethical categories, respected or disgraced for individual actions. Clearly it is understood by most that a person is not shaped exclusively by that which is not part of him, but also by himself. Certainly genes, upbringing, society and the situative environment are influences, but it is also the self that forms the self. This self-forming takes place with every decision made, changing the status, the shape of oneself, the individual path of the person through life.

Some might argue that every decision made is already and exclusively determined by the previous state of the person and its environment, and that as such no real decision is made because there is no choice but only the effect of the cause which is the state of the universe.

Instead of refuting the deterministic and probabilistic denials of free will as being ultimately self-contradictory, it shall be asserted that free will - non-deterministic and non-probabilistic - is a required fact if rationality, ethics and morality - all three - are in any way justifiable. However small free will, that hard to grasp grain that tips the scales of our decisions, might be, it plays the central role in the person becoming a Self.

For this to be effectually true, the influence of free will in the person’s decisions must be maximized so that it is will that dominates the decision in freedom. At that point privacy achieves its ultimate importance. Only in privacy can a decision be contemplated in separation from the influence of other persons and the own person, the self, actualized freely. Hiding in privacy removes the tainting of the decision through outside preselection of facts, outside censorship, the promise of reward and punishment by other humans, hubris, pride and shame. Here honesty towards one’s self is possible. It is only through and in privacy where a potential equilibrium of choices can be discovered, just to be resolved through the action of the free will of the Self.

If one is in any way determined to work on one’s own self and aware of the responsibility this entails, then privacy in this regard must be maintained. Though even through giving up to develop one’s self, a choice has been made with the responsibility for it as it’s consequence - except that this choice is to be a product determined by others instead of a self. A disregard for maintaining privacy in this area thus equals the utter disrespect for the Self one is, and the potential selves one could become. It is the denial and defiling of oneself as an individual person.

In conclusion the proposition is, that: Only in privacy the “self of now” transcends itself to actualize “the self of the future” through every decision made, integrating the “self of the past” fully and becoming more of a Self by removing the influence of an Other.

In passing by it should be noted that the practice of hiding things because of their value, especially if it the hiding of information about something, must be subject of consideration as well. It cannot be argued for using lies as the method of concealment, since this would often result in doing a disfavor to the thing valued and respected. Nor can a life of lies result in a positive development of the Self. Instead it is the concealing of information, without replacing them with a false statement that is communicated as the whole truth only, that should be chosen as a means. Which however presents another problem: As much as the presence of a sign can be a signal, its absence can be one too. Indeed it is the presence of some signs that can signal the meaning communicated by other signs. Selective privacy might as such communicate the content of what should have been concealed. For example, if one is asked for one’s favorite color and presented with a series of potential answers, it is the denying of the incorrect answers and the silence towards the correct answer that communicates what was intended to remain hidden. It should thus be noticed, that the hiding of one thing necessitates the hiding of other things of the same context. As a means thereof it is preferable to keep silent instead of lying, as stated above.

So far, the privacy opponent’s reply “I have nothing to hide because I have nothing to fear” has been shown to be a rhetoric trap, or at least an insufficiently contemplated cultural maxim. It has also been shown that there exist good reasons to embrace privacy, hiding and concealment. However, this text cannot be complete without some short answers to those, that identify privacy and secrecy as roots of evil in society that erode every social and political system and relationship.

Their primary argument is, that privacy encourages and facilitates all kinds of corruption and abuse of power. Furthermore they claim that privacy results in the disintegration of the interpersonal bonds that hold society together.

To the first, two replies shall be given: For one, it has long be understood that abuse of power and corruption are systemic to power and delegation themselves, and that transparency and accountability are mere interventions to limit the spread of these flaws at the root of the problem. Instead of attacking privacy as being the problem, one should think about alternative methods of cooperation and organization that are free of these negative systemic tendencies in themselves. On a more shallow note it should be pointed out that the people active in positions and offices have given up their status of private persons in exchange to be leaders and representatives of the public - the masses. Instead of developing themselves and their relationships they have chosen to become instruments of the public, or at least they pretend as much. How can such an argument against privacy then be used against the privacy of people that remain private instead of public? This appears to be fallacious.

Towards their second argument, the “disintegration of interpersonal bonds that hold society together”, it should be be understood both what “society” is, and what “interpersonal bonds” may refer to. Society is not a collective of interdependent persons connected b shared emotional states and intimacy, that would be what is commonly referred to as “family”. Instead, society is the cooperative organization of persons that is held together by norms of interaction and shared understanding of necessary and useful methods of cooperation. It is thus the actions toward society in the realm of society and not the totality of actions and knowledge that constitute these bonds in practice. The partaking in society is thus a voluntary, freely chosen and limited activity by each of its members for the purpose of cooperation with all other others in society. Privacy only becomes erosive to societies that intend to regulate and organize even those individual activities that neither rely nor influence all of society. These societies are commonly identified with Totalitarism. Instead of relying on a bonding through a shared experience off weakness and lack of self, or directing society to be bound by the smallest - and lowest - common denominators, a society of privacy allows for the progression of all members to actualize higher potentials without replacing the individual person with the collective Other of society. Privacy thus nurtures societies that thrive for improvement. This might even hold the potential for individual actors to integrate justifiable norms of social interaction into their Selves through independent contemplation and decisions instead of understanding these norms as being imposed by an Other. Does this hold the promise of social interaction to become more reliable and truthful? Answering affirmative seems to be more justifiable than the negation.

However, one warning against privacy is appropriate. Be it a personal lifestyle or a culture of privacy, both demand personal improvement from each partaking individual. This is the result of privacy to allow for, and supporting of, discriminatory relationships and the decoupling from the influence of others. Privacy thus removes many opportunities to blame others and to excuse oneself in light of personal error. Nevertheless, privacy also allows for many justified second chances and true forgiveness.

In summary it can be concluded that maintaining privacy and hiding of things serves well in preserving and expressing the values one attributes to things and other persons. Furthermore privacy is a necessary condition for the continual development of the Self and the sustentation of truthful and honest interpersonal relationships by means of communicative discrimination. In turn, the denial of privacy must be realized to be unjustified and even harmful. The presented arguments for the allegedly negative impact of privacy have been found to be without merit or even supporting the strong use of privacy in society.

The conclusion drawn is therefor that opposition to privacy as in “I hide nothing because I have nothing to fear” cannot be a default behavior. Instead the use and support of privacy in the form of “Because I value many things, therefor I hide many things” should be the standard unless it clearly needs to be abandoned for specific situations, if at all.