What do we lose when we lose our privacy? This question has become increasingly difficult to answer, living as we do in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) as never before, to commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy. Although this is a new phenomenon, it has become as ubiquitous as it is quotidian, and for that reason, it is perhaps one of the most telling signs of our time. To get a sense of the sheer range of unconscious exhibitionism, we need only think of the popularity of reality TV shows, addiction-recovery memoirs, and cancer diaries. Then there are the banal but even more conspicuous varieties, like soaring, all-glass luxury apartment buildings and hotels in which inhabitants display themselves in all phases of their private lives to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers below. Or the incessant sound of people talking loudly—sometimes gossiping, sometimes crying—on their cell phones, broadcasting to total strangers the intimate details of their lives.
And, of course, there are now unprecedented opportunities for violating one’s own privacy, furnished by the technology of the internet. The results are everywhere, from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity of Facebook users registering their personal “likes” and preferences. (As we recently learned, this online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe; more than fifty million users’ idly generated “data” was “harvested” by Cambridge Analytica to make “personality profiles” that were then used to target voters with advertisements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)
Beyond these branded and aggressively marketed forums for self-invasions of privacy there are all the giddy, salacious forms that circulate in graphic images and words online—the sort that led not so long ago to the downfall of Anthony Weiner. The mania for attention of any kind is so pervasive—and the invasion of privacy so nonchalant—that many of us no longer notice, let alone mind, what in the past would have been experienced as insolent violations of privacy.
The Inward Domain Under Siege
Given our widespread obliviousness to the current situation, we might be better served by asking: What did people used to believe they lost when they lost their privacy? Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, the first defenders of privacy became aware of its value at the moment they were on the verge of losing it. Privacy, they were convinced, was under siege as never before: from new mass-circulation newspapers that specialized in invasive, gossipy, sensational stories, aided and abetted by impudent interviewers and photographers, and from the publication of excessively revealing biographies, private letters, new-style realist novels, and pamphlets dealing with what was then called “sexual hygiene.” It is also worth noting that in the most searching analyses of privacy, an author almost always pointed out that privacy was “a distinctly modern product, one of the luxuries of civilization, which is not only unsought for but unknown in primitive or barbarous societies,” as E. L. Godkin, a leading man of letters and founding editor of The Nation, put it in 1890. And privacy was all the more precious to them for that reason.
No doubt the most famous nineteenth-century article on the subject is “The Right to Privacy” by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and his law partner at the time, Samuel Warren, published in The Harvard Law Review in 1890. By this time, the violation of “the sacred precincts of private and domestic life” by “the instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise” had gone so far, and the press had so radically “overstepp[ed] in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and decency” that Brandeis and Warren believed the law would have to intervene.
There are now unlimited opportunities for violating one’s own privacy.
To this end, they invented a legal right to privacy dedicated to protecting the “spiritual precincts” of “inviolate personality.” Godkin, too, recoiled at the “vulgarity, indecency, and reckless sensationalism” of this new journalism. And he spoke of the significance of privacy in much the same way as Brandeis and Warren in an influential essay, “The Rights of the Citizen—to His Own Reputation” published the same year in the more popular Scribner’s Magazine. The legal recognition of Sir Edward Coke’s famous dictum, “A man’s house is his castle,” according to Godkin, was “but the outward and visible sign of the law’s respect for his personality as an individual, for that kingdom of the mind, that inner world of personal thought and feeling in which every man passes some time.” Here Godkin was drawing on the liberal understanding of privacy as articulated by J. S. Mill in On Liberty (1859). “The appropriate region of human liberty,” Mill declared, is “the inward domain of consciousness.” For Mill, privacy was essential for the development of one’s individuality and autonomy.
The defenders of reticence also held that respect for privacy was essential for the cultivation and preservation of “personal dignity.” This was meant on the most basic, human level of preserving a secure realm in which one could conduct one’s daily life unobserved. Critics were revolted by the very fact of exposure, noting, for example, the way journalists subjected the figure of the American president (in this case, Grover Cleveland) to constant, near-forensic public scrutiny: “the President is photographed and described in all possible and impossible places and positions, dignified and otherwise,” complained a critic for The Arena in 1897, “and his family are pictured in detail, mostly from imagination.” Repeatedly, reticence-minded critics wondered aloud about what would happen to “decency, modesty, sanctity—conceptions which, after many painful centuries, the more civilized minority of the human race has begun to venerate” in the new society of “presumptuous” and incessant publicity.
In addition to losing the protected space where we think and feel—the very foundation of our “inviolate personality” and “personal dignity”—the party of reticence spoke with alarm about another loss. It does not concern the person whose privacy has been violated but rather all of us who willingly look on. One of the most memorable expressions of this apprehension appears in a lesser-known novel by Henry James, The Reverberator (1888). Reflecting on what a steady diet of sensational, gossipy newspapers has done to her and her family, the novel’s heroine, Francie Dosson, worries that she and they have become “coarse and callous,” that they have “lost their delicacy, the sense of certain differences and decencies.”
Moral coarsening—the wearing away of the capacity to recognize what one has become—was both the deepest anxiety and the deepest insight of the party of reticence. If it is our very capacity for sensitivity, our feeling for “certain differences and decencies”—what used to be regarded as a sense of shame—that we lose as a consequence of inhabiting a world where no one is guaranteed the refuge of privacy and no subject is afforded the protection of silence, then this goes a long way toward explaining why more than a century later—after the invention and proliferation of the radio, television, cell phones, twenty-four-hour news cycles, and the internet—so many of us today have such a hard time recognizing what we lose when we lose our privacy. It turns out that the very atmosphere in which we move and breathe deprives us of the perception we need to recognize our predicament.
Nothing to Hide
But it is not just our moral coarsening that has made our condition all but invisible to us. It is that the very idea of moral coarsening—and, for that matter, “delicacy,” “decency,” “propriety,” “sanctity,” and “shame”—sounds old-fashioned or worse. This is because alongside the nineteenth-century reverence for privacy as the guarantor of individuality and dignity, there arose a competing cult of candor and openness that interprets every attempt to maintain one’s privacy as proof of evasion or repression, as some form of guilty cover-up.
This way of thinking, which acquired even more authority after Sigmund Freud’s extensive studies of the evasions and repressions of the unconscious, has become such an inveterate habit of mind that it is now largely beyond dispute (unlike so much else of Freudian psychoanalytic theory). And, in turn, this sacrosanct ethos of exposure makes it very difficult for us to think clearly about its underlying premises—which is precisely what we need to do if we are ever to understand why so many of our contemporaries think it is a good idea to live in glass houses, literally and metaphorically speaking.
Like the self-conscious understanding of privacy, the cult of exposure is of recent vintage, emerging during the last part of the nineteenth century. Its reigning faith was that people—good, honest people—have nothing to hide. “Live in the open air!” Mary Putnam Jacobi, a doctor and suffragist, exhorted her audience in a public lecture before the New York City Positivist Society in 1871. “A thing that one is not willing the whole world should know,” proclaimed Jacobi, “is wrong.” In The Reverberator, James captured this attitude at its most primitive level when he put the following thought into one of his character’s heads: “Well if folks are immoral you can’t keep it out of the papers—and I don’t know as you ought to want to.”
This deep-seated suspicion of privacy as a hiding place for wrongdoing took on a particular cast in Western democracies. “In all democratic societies today,” wrote Godkin, “the public is disposed either to resent attempts at privacy, either of mind or body, or to turn them into ridicule.” In addition, “democratic” apostles of exposure were apt to suspect “all regard for or precautions about privacy” as signs of “exclusiveness”—what today is called “elitism.” James brings this attitude to exquisite life when he has the prying newspaperman George Flack explain his ambitions to his friend Francie Dosson:
I’m going for the inside view, the choice bits . . . what the people want is just what ain’t told, and I’m going to tell it. . . .That’s about played out, anyway, the idea of sticking up a sign of ‘private’ and ‘hands off’ and ‘no thoroughfare’ and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. . . . Now what I’m going to do is set up the biggest lamp yet made and make it shine all over the place. We’ll see who’s private then, and whose hands are off, and who’ll frustrate the People—the People that wants to know. That’s a sign of the American people that they do want to know.
This allegedly democratic appeal to the “people” was constantly put forward by editors of the new-style journalism: “We are giving the people what they want and we have the receipts to prove it.” And it is a refrain we continue to hear today, from Sumner Redstone and Jeff Zucker, as well as from the more ideologically driven pundits in the alt-right and talk-radio media spheres.
The Self, Debunked
Critics of invasive journalism found the appeal to the marketplace self-serving rather than egalitarian. Behind the charge of “exclusiveness” they identified a deformed double of the democratic principle of equality, what Godkin called “the general desire for superiority, no matter how acquired, with which we are all consciously or unconsciously motivated.” Here, Godkin was drawing attention to a powerful, unsavory impulse that has all but dropped from our consciousness, one that today’s screaming cell phone users and internet exhibitionists would do well to remember. Brazen journalism was the great, spite-filled equalizer, lowering its subjects to the same level as the reporter and the reader: “The dragging down of the mighty has been not unpleasing sport to the natural man in all ages.” This desire to lower was repeatedly denounced. “Is a man the object of reverence and admiration for piety, high mindedness, purity?” asked W. S. Lilly in an article entitled “The Ethics of Journalism” (1889).
Newspaper censors, with due protestation of hatred of hypocrisy, will strip off the veneer which imposes on the unsuspicious, will show their readers that these pretended virtues are a mere cloak for some base or sordid end; will demonstrate conclusively that ‘old Cato is as great a rogue as you.’. . . One of the main achievements of the newspaper press during the last quarter of a century has been to deidealize public life.
Brazen journalism was the great, spite-filled equalizer.
For James, the modern newspaper represented “the highest expression of ‘familiarity,’ the sinking of manners, in so many ways, which the democratization of the world brings with it.” In this same vein, Godkin told a story about a traveler’s experience at a hotel in a western mining town who “pinned a shirt across his open window on the piazza while performing his toilet; after a few minutes he saw it drawn aside roughly by a hand from without, and on asking what it meant, a voice answered, ‘We want to know what there is so darned private going on in there?’” The stinging demand, “What is so darned private going on in there?” signals the propensity of vulgarity to focus exclusively on what everyone has in common—their private bodily existence. This focus momentarily does away with all social or hereditary differences—as well as legitimate distinctions rooted in achievement—effectively reducing everyone to the base equality of the condition of having a body. And the prying spirit of journalism accomplishes much the same thing, transforming one’s personal life into common property. As James put it in his description of the newspaperman in The Bostonians: “For this ingenuous son of his age all distinction between the person and the artist had ceased to exist; the writer was personal, the person food for newsboys, and everything and everyone were everyone’s business.”
Modern apostles of exposure—which includes not only prying journalists but also purveyors of the commercial-entertainment industry, avant-garde writers and artists and their champions, self-styled social progressives and radicals, lawyers and legal scholars, psychoanalysts and doctors, as well as historians—have cast the conflict between exposure and reticence not as a story of loss but of positive gain. And this reassuring narrative has proved irresistible to all forward-looking people: our liberation versus their repression and censorship; our candor versus their evasions and hypocrisy; our tolerance versus their bigotry and prejudice; our sophistication—and particularly our psychological acuity—versus their puritanical moralism.
In the first round of the good fight against prurient prudes and fanatical censors, who did exist during the Victorian era and needed to be vanquished, the reticent sensibility and the habits of mind considered essential for the conduct of civilized life—taste, tact, decorum, propriety, reserve, discretion—were deprived of their reality. This was the historical moment when the drawing of boundaries between public and private was wrongly—and fatefully— identified with the prudish, censorious sensibility that we automatically dismiss as “Puritanical” or “Victorian.” Today, however, as we face threats to privacy on a scale that would have stunned the most far-seeing critics of exposure—but equally, I cannot help but believe, its most ardent earliest promoters—it is more pressing than ever for us to revisit two important aspects of the reticent sensibility.
The first concerns the widely accepted notion that only people who are involved in wrongdoing or the guilty cover-up of wrongdoing have something to hide. The party of reticence, in starkest contrast, believed there were limits to knowledge that must be respected. “All the more intimate and delicate relations,” wrote James Fitzjames Stephen in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity (1873), “are of such a nature that to submit them to unsympathetic observation, or to observation which is sympathetic in the wrong way, inflicts great pain, and may inflict lasting moral injury.” And it was not only outside attention from which one’s intimate and delicate relations need to be shielded; the party of reticence also believed that fragile aspects of our interior life must be kept at a distance even from ourselves. “Privacy may be violated not only by the intrusion of a stranger,” Stephen observed, “but by compelling or persuading a person to direct too much attention to his own feelings, and to attach too much importance to their analysis.” To which he added, “That any one human creature should ever really strip his soul stark naked for the inspection of any other, and be able to hold up his head afterwards, is not, I suppose, impossible, because so many people profess to do it; but to lookers-on from the outside is inconceivable.” From this perspective only a person without dimension, a person who is either shallow or empty, has nothing to hide—a perspective that could not be more alien to our confessional, tell-all, therapeutic culture of exposure.
The other aspect of the reticent sensibility that deserves serious consideration is its defenders’ belief that words and images that appear in public matter far more than anyone imagines today—not least because they understood that the public and private realms were linked in ways that we have long lost track of. Over and over, they raised the question of which matters were large and significant enough to rightly occupy our public space and withstand public scrutiny and which matters were so small, personal, or fragile that they required the obscurity of privacy to exist at all, let alone to retain their meaning and emotional resonance. This, they repeatedly noted, was a matter of taste (another term that has little resonance today); a matter of properly judging the scale and proportion of the things of the world. And the faculty of taste, they feared, was just as likely to be worn away by a steady diet of invasive, sensational journalism as the sense of delicacy, which made possible the recognition of and respect for “certain differences and decencies.”
Sense and Sensitivity
We are confronted with another loss of sensibility that has blinded us to what we might call the collateral damage of today’s widespread disregard for privacy. We are no longer aware, as the party of reticence was, that when private matters are indiscriminately flooded with light their very nature changes. Take, for example, the affair of Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels (or that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky or Anthony Weiner and his sexting partners). For the people involved—most certainly for the cuckolded spouses—the affairs were important and consequential, but once they were exposed in public they became banal and laughable, furnishing steady material for the jokes of late-night talk shows. And the transformation can go in another direction: now that newspapers have abandoned euphemism to describe what these people did in what they believed was private, their sexual proclivities, flooded by light, have become obscene. The latter has especially been the case with the #MeToo movement: any reader of the latest, minutely detailed article about sexual harassment that the New York Times specializes in quickly finds that he or she has been turned into a voyeur. It is no wonder, then, that the world we inhabit together feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial. When the boundary between public and private becomes as extremely porous as it is today, we lose far more than “that kingdom of the mind, that inner world of personal thought and feeling in which every man passes some time,” which would have been disastrous enough.
How can we begin to think about protecting our private experiences and our common world from more and more brazen indifference to their inherent fragility? The first thing we need to recognize is that the law is no help. Brandeis and Warren’s resort to it was already a desperate measure, a sign of how few alternatives were available even in the nineteenth century, and furthermore, that those who sought to remedy invasions of privacy by taking their case to court almost always lost. This is largely due to the conceptual poverty of the law. Since legal remedies are possible only when the rights and material interests of a particular individual have been violated, right-to-privacy litigation encompassed only the commercial use of a person’s likeness for advertising purposes without that person’s consent (and the plaintiff typically lost even in this narrow domain). As a result, the law was unable to take account either of the “spiritual precincts” of “inviolate personality,” as pictured by Brandeis and Warren, or of the broader moral and aesthetic damage inflicted on the public sphere by unceasing, reckless exposure.
The world we inhabit today feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial.
What is needed to protect both our privacy and our common world belongs to an entirely different realm—one that is deeper, and far more elusive than the law: the realm of sensibility. Here we need to acknowledge again that the sensibility that once protected our privacy and our common world—the reticent sensibility with its keywords of shame, propriety, decorum, and decency—has been discredited and now feels anachronistic. Yet, without it, in a cruel turn of historical irony, we are largely resourceless and defenseless.
Whenever I get to this point in my thinking, my next step is to ask, are there any daily experiences, practices, traditions of thought, social conditions still alive—even fragments of them—that cultivate or encourage respect for privacy, dignity, civility, let alone recognition of the sense of the fragility of others as well as of ourselves? How can we revive those aspects of the reticent sensibility that we need in circumstances radically different from the world in which they originally emerged? What would be their new foundation? I am sorry to report that I find myself at a complete loss for an answer. And this is disheartening. For I fear that unless we can recover the kind of sensitivity that used to recoil in the presence of indecency—what used to be called a sense of shame—we will live in a world where fewer and fewer people are aware that they lose anything at all when they lose their privacy.