LET’S BEGIN BY DOING A LITTLE SHARING
Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.
—THOMAS PAINE, COMMON SENSE
Does anything say so much about the times we live in as the fact that the word sharing has almost everything to do with personal information and almost nothing to do with personal wealth?
Of course, some will answer that we live in times when information is wealth. Generally these are people who have good teeth and drive nice cars. When they sit down to eat, which they do regularly and well, you can bet they’re not eating information.
To say the same thing in slightly different words: You and I belong to a society in which the gap between the rich and the poor is widening even as our personal privacy shrinks. It is the contention of this book that these two phenomena are connected, and connected in a number of ways.
To state just one of those ways: We tend to think of our right to privacy as a value that came about with the historical growth of the middle class. If, as current indices of income suggest, the middle class is vanishing, then it should come as no surprise if the privacy of all but a few people is vanishing with it.
This book also contends that privacy is important and worthy of preservation. It is important and worthy of preservation for the simple reason that human beings are important and worthy of preservation. These may seem like rather obvious statements, though if they were that obvious or universally believed we would not be so easily resigned to losing our privacy and to watching so many of our fellow human beings fall further and further behind in health, in education, in political power, and in privacy.
That privacy is a good thing for human beings is not hard to establish. Were it not a good thing, the wealthier among us would not enjoy more of it than the less wealthy do. The best things in life may be free, but that seldom prevents those at the top of the food chain from appropriating a lion’s share of the best things. Air is free, but it tends to smell better in Malibu than in East L.A.
Some would contend that Americans, like citizens of other democratic nations, all have an equal right to privacy regardless of the air they breathe—and in some notable if not always typical instances, courts in the United States have agreed. But the right to privacy depends in large part on one’s opportunities for enjoying a private life. Americans are all guaranteed freedom of the press, too, but what does that mean if you have never been taught to read or write?
In the hopes of giving as thorough an introduction as possible to the big idea of privacy, this small book will range over a number of topics, but it will always come back to the basic themes I’ve stated above: the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don’t; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.
I should add that giving a thorough introduction to privacy is not the same thing as giving it an airtight definition, a project I regard as both impossible and unwise. That’s not to say I won’t try for a tentative definition later in the book, or that I agree with a scholar who says, “Perhaps the most striking thing about privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.”
In fact, I think most of us do have a clear idea—if not clear enough to define the word, then clear enough to express the need behind it. Clear enough to say “Let me alone.” Not to be confused with “Leave me alone,” “Let me alone” is ever the cry of privately disposed women and men, of anyone who struggles to keep some reasonable hold on his or her short and not always sweet life. We are entitled to that cry.
That said, we will cry it in vain so long as we settle for anything less than a beloved community, with liberty and justice for all.
Copyright © 2012 by Garret Keizer