observations and opinion
Several years ago a U.S. Congressman emailed photos of his genitalia to girls, presumably to tempt them into using his apparatus. The unfortunately named Mr. Weiner believed the ladies would respect his privacy. A wag might say he committed a real boner there. The photos emerged, the Congressman first lied and then blathered on a bit, and then quit politics. I am not sure that Anthony Weiner should have been disqualified for public office because of his private mistake. He certainly seemed stupid, but that hasn’t been a bar to elected office before.
Your private parts are probably not on public display. If there are photos of you naked, or engaged in intimate activities, you probably keep them on a device you believe to be secure, safe from prying eyes. I hope you are right about that, my friend, because it seems more and more people believe they have every right in the world to look at your pictures, whether you permit it or not.
Last year’s blast of non-consensual gazing at private parts came when photos of starlets were leaked. Now the Ashley Madison hack has spilled the identities of millions of people who had signed up with a website looking to have an illicit affair. The culprits in the hack claim some moral high ground for their actions. But they are wrong. They can’t even spell “moral high ground” never mind stand on it.
The viewing public isn’t much better. People comb the list of names and addresses, searching for people they know and for famous names. Sanctimonious moralists snigger gleefully at the outing of “cheaters.” Some American “traditional values” spokesman ended up on the list; he is now apologizing profusely while millions denounce his hypocrisy. If there are 30 million North Americans named in this massive data breach, that leaves another 300 million who get to feel superior and judgmental about them.
A billion words will be spilled about this, in commentary and argument and litigation, for years to come. Yet the core truth about it all is very simple: in a free society people get to choose much of what they do, and they get to choose who knows it. If someone engages in a legal activity that is private and meant to stay private, YOU AREN’T SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT IT. Unless they tell you, of course.
Privacy has its limits: if my neighbour walks around naked near his front window, he cannot complain if people see him. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in front of a window. Similarly, if someone posts criticism of her boss on the Internet, she shouldn’t be surprised (or aggrieved) if she is disciplined or fired for it. That which we have chosen, deliberately or sloppily, to make public, becomes public.
But that which we have chosen not to make public, is not. The things we choose to keep private, are rightly and only private (unless they are unlawful). You may have an Ashley Madison account. You may spend ungodly amounts of money on hiking equipment. You may have a really heavy period. You may have posed naked in a photo for your boyfriend or girlfriend. You may be secretly in love with your boss, or with a barrista at Starbucks. Your mom may have pictures of you learning to go potty. There may be a book containing the poems of Rilke by your bedside. You may take meds for depression.
Those choices and truths belong to you. Unless you decide to share them with me, or are so casual and unguarded that you let them slip out, I have absolutely no right to know any of them. Do you know how I am absolutely certain that I have no right to know them? Because YOU HAVEN’T SHARED THEM WITH ME. It’s incredibly simple, actually.
In our interconnected age, where social media gives us platforms to collect and post snapshots, facts, truths, lies, opinions, cat videos and designs for pretty blouses (Pinterest), information about our lives has become more available. Some people think that the opening up of our lives in that way creates a license to look at everything else they want to see. That is certainly the hazard.
But the best measure of what we should know about someone else is whatever boundary that someone else sets. Where she or he draws the line, is the line.
The Ashley Madison hack is like a plane crash, where the bodies are sprayed out across a mountainside, naked and torn to pieces. It’s an ugly mess. It wasn’t meant to happen, it shouldn’t have happened, and the people who made it happen are evil monsters.
Reading the names is like staring at photos of the wreckage. We are not supposed to know who was on the plane. We are not supposed to see their bodies. We are not supposed to see their luggage. We are not supposed to know where they were going, what they were hoping for, what they feared. None of that information has any business being on your computer or in your head.
Imagine that a Brinks truck crashes into a telephone pole outside your house, at night. The drivers are unconscious, the back door of the truck is open and sacks of cash have spilled out on the sidewalk. The cash belongs to a bank but it is actually the money of a high school girl, saving for a trip to Nashville; or it is the payroll of a small flower shop. Or maybe it all belongs to a drug dealer.
Whoever the money may belong to, we know one thing for sure: it’s not yours. The fact that the truck dumped its contents on your lawn, doesn’t mean you get to go out and take it. Nobody who entrusted their money to the bank, signed a note saying that you were allowed to take it, if you felt like it. Because it doesn’t belong to you.
You might say that a drug dealer has no moral or legal right to the money. Even if you’re right, that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to take it. You might say that the girl going to Nashville is wasting her money – she should visit New York City instead. I might agree with you. But is that your decision? It’s not mine. Maybe she’s going to Nashville to have an abortion she can’t get at home. Maybe she’s a Right-to-Lifer going there to picket the abortion clinic. It’s irrelevant: how the cash was earned or how it might be spent is irrelevant, because it’s NOT YOUR MONEY.
So too with the identities and activities of the Ashley Madison members. A self-appointed “family values” moralist named Josh Duggar turned up on the list. He is, like everyone else on the list, embarrassed, particularly so because his private conduct seems inconsistent with his public opinions. So it easy to laugh at Duggar, to judge him and delight in his discomfort (especially because he has been such a bastard about LGBT rights). Having made his living riding a moral high horse, it is easy to revel in the sight of him falling off it.
It is easy, but it is wrong. Mr. Duggar signed up with the infidelity website, presumably, to have clandestine affairs with someone he wasn’t married to. He chose to do that privately, for a variety of reasons. He did not choose to tell you about it. And so you know what? You are not entitled to know.
Actresses often take their clothes off for movies or photo shoots. Those images are meant to be public. But that public activity does not destroy their right to privacy. If Jessica Brown-Findlay or Jennifer Lawrence want to pose for pictures or videos that are meant to be private, those things are supposed to stay private. The same goes for blowhard fundamentalist hypocrits. Honest.
You don’t have to like, respect or agree with Mr. Duggar for him to have a right to privacy. Just like he doesn’t have to like, respect or agree with you, for you to have a right to privacy.
Your life is like the forest. A forest is a million living things, packed together, much of it invisible. The trees create a canopy of shade, filter light and rain; their roots hold the soil together like an old man’s fingers, tightly clutching the earth. Every manner of living thing takes shelter there. Not all of them are pretty, but they are alive and they belong in the forest.
The clear cutting of a forest leaves the earth shorn of protection; the ground crumbles into dry clumps and rivers of mud. The life that flourished is flushed away, dried up in the bleak sun. All that thrives there must flee, or die. This is what happens to you, what will happen to all of us, as our privacy is destroyed.
We live in a time when more and more of our activities are tracked and recorded. Our phones can tell people where we are standing. Our online purchases or shopping tells companies which ads to flash on our screens. Off line and on the streets, the heightened fear of terroristic violence has become a rationale (sometimes legitimate) for sacrifices in privacy, such as the UK’s close circuit camera system or bag searches in movie theatres.
All the more reason, then, to be vigilant in the defence of privacy. All the more reason not to become part of the surveillance culture invading and eroding privacy. Unless there is a compelling legal reason for information to be uncovered (protection of the vulnerable, stopping crime, etc), nothing personal should be released or acquired without consent. Because looking without consent is unjustified surveillance – little better than a spy, or a peeping tom.
You have no right to know something unless someone has chosen to share it with you. And no-one has a right to see your private parts, unless you choose to show them.
Like you and what you do with your time, Ashley Madison customers chose privacy. The hackers stole that choice from them, but you can give them back their privacy – not all of it, but some – by choosing not to look.
It really is that simple.