We have all heard the old mantra from the dictatorships which goes something like this, “Who cares if people know what you’re doing. As long as you are following the law you have nothing to worry about.” Until of course those very laws turn against free men and our natural rights of life, liberty and property. And, when that happens, behind which fig leaf can we hide after having exposed ourselves before a world which revels in the profane and the intimate made public?
That is a good enough reason for privacy. A secret place to be alone with our thoughts where there, at least, we are free to explore the limitlessness of the human experience without the fear of the censors we always seem to have with us. Fahrenheit 451; Brave New World; 1984. More so today than perhaps in any time in my lifetime, as our world does seem somehow dystopian these days.
This, however, is not a good enough reason. For it is too extreme, to talk of dictatorship and book-burning in America elicits yawns and eye-rolls. I have been pondering privacy a great deal lately. One might believe, and in the 21st century we are surely told, that privacy is important for us to keep our sins to ourselves. Privacy is a dirty place, full of nasty videos or racist thoughts or uncharitable behavior. If it were not so, why would we feel any tinge of nervousness having a google-chip read our mind to free-post our daily lives on Facebook? “What do you have to worry about, if your thoughts are wholly wholesome?”
This argument, like the previous one, is also dangerous. It is dangerous because it sounds like it should be right and it does not allow space for argument. “Tell me what you’re thinking!” and why would you not, unless you were thinking something wicked? “I should be able to think my wicked thoughts, without judgement!” you respond; admitting that you are a sinful man and your private places foul and vulgar.
That is wrong.
The attack on privacy is not an attack on individuals – not really. It is an attack on objective truth. Kierkegaard once wrote, “When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.” The definition of subjectivity is, “taking place within the mind and modified by individual bias.” No truth exists, therefore I must know more about you, before I decide whether or not to believe what you are telling me.
Therein lies the problem.
Objective truth assures us that there is a single reality which is applicable to everybody; just as real as the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. This singularity is comforting because it allows us a bar, a weight or a measure against which to judge actions and ideas – not people – to see if we find them wanting or not. Thomas Jefferson wrote an amazing declaration, notwithstanding the fact that he held slaves. Martin Luther King Junior told us about his dream, a dream that did not become less real – less true – when we learned he had been unfaithful. The modern subjective world seeks to free us from this. They wish to selectively judge and interpret ideas based upon the vessel from which they were poured. If the idea is judged valuable – that is, if it is consistent with the post-modern ideas of subjectivity and victimization and intersectionality – then the flawed vessel is accepted. If the ideas are seen as going against the prevailing winds, well then they can easily be discarded by finding a crack or smudge upon the decanter to push it aside as one would a glass of dirty water, the filth having contaminated the entire drought.
This of course is trouble, because objective truth remains – independent of the mouthpiece. Because the role of truth is to challenge power; and truth is always uncomfortable to those dealing in pull. And because private thoughts that are noble might therefore be cast as ignoble by the prevailing winds, an anti-morality which has become common judging the fates of chicken restaurant owners and cake bakers in a post-modern world which accepts only subjectivity, and allow ideas which are modern-day-uncomfortable to be pushed aside more easily. Incidentally, this is often called “ad hominem” and is one of the great logical fallacies – but how many students of knowledge have studied these ancient rules of civilized understanding and debate?
Imagine if what survived to us of Plato was not The Republic but instead a tawdry little tell-all about his affairs and indiscretions. What if Aristotle had left us not with Ethics but instead with a series of selfies and recordings of him telling vulgar jokes. What if De La Republica had not become Cicero’s legacy to the world after the Roman mobs goaded on by their ephemeral leaders angry at his challenges decided to use his private affairs against him. Should so-great a lesson in decency as was the life of Billy Graham be abandoned because he was pro-life, and a creationist – ideas not popular in our subjective world?
Privacy frees us from the disappointments we must indubitably suffer upon learning that the great men and women we admire are also human; thereby allowing us to retain our hope and our sense of humanity’s epic struggles. And it allows us to keep back some of the nobility we hide within, nobility which is often unpopular and by which our enemies would destroy us – allowing us to choose our battles carefully as philosophers throughout history have always done.