The Collapse of Privacy
Have we lost respect for privacy?
Posted Oct 06, 2010
The horrific tragedy of Tyler Clementi's death has been discussed in terms of many crucial issues: What is just punishment for the perpetrators? How evolved is the interpersonal context of morality in our families, schools and larger culture?
I think there is another issue for us to face, and that is the confusing and eroded separation of personal and private life that is affecting all of us. My particular concern is that young people of college age, whose sense of self and moral development is still in an acute stage of formation, are confused and disoriented by the erosion of personal boundaries. In our media culture, any aspect of experience has become fodder for public consumption and viewing.
Someone recently quoted a Charlie Rose interview of Jeanne Moreau, the famous French actress, who stopped drinking in her forties because it was a hazard to her life and profession. Rose kept asking her, "Why and how did you stop drinking?" She didn't want to discuss it and she kept replying, "It was time," and again, "It was time," no matter how much he pursued his interest in what she considered a personal matter. This scene in my mind has a sepia-toned, historical quality to it. Today, much less is private and the zone of the private is shrinking all the time.
Ironically, we legally recognize the boundary between the public and the private. The historic Roe v. Wade decision was made on the constitutional right of privacy. Psychologically we know that the private is a true and essential aspect of human experience. Two famous psychoanalysts--Harry Stack Sullivan and Donald Winnicott--who spent their lives helping people bare their souls, nevertheless both believed that there are elements of personal experience that they could never learn about or reach, and respected their sanctity.
We all know the direction media entertainment has taken us in the last decade: 1) reality shows which expose what is truly private romantic, erotic or aggressive behavior; 2) testimonial T.V. shows in which people accuse, surprise and reunite -extraordinarily powerful moments-as spectacle for millions of viewers.
But there is a more intimate aspect of boundary invasion. Relationships are ending because partners and lovers read each other's Facebook entries, and interpret what are often casual affectionate remarks for heated passions. These entries are misinterpreted because they are not meant to be shared beyond the two people exchanging them; they are not open data. I could continue to give many more illustrations of how electronic connection, though rich and positive in many ways, is nevertheless subverting personal boundaries. We must, as a national community, honor a boundary between private and public experience, if we are going to raise respectful and decent children.