Guarding Privacy

I am a collector of aphorisms.  I admire the wit that can encapsulate a general truth in a knotty turn of phrase.  I am also fascinated by the chameleon-like ability they have to suddenly display an application in a totally new area.  Since a good aphorism embodies some general truth it naturally attunes itself to other, often surprising, applications of the same truth.

For instance, I was lucky enough to be introduced to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as an adult.  Ostensibly charming children’s stories, they are also multi-level parables, reflecting Lewis’ vision of the universe.  As such, the are rife with lessons to be learned…and remembered.

On occasion, Aslan, the overlord of Narnia, grants one of his lead characters a vision of another place or another reality.  But whenever he is questioned about the fate or future of another person in the vision, he always says something like, “Ah, but that would be their story.  I can only tell you about your story.”

Not perhaps, the obvious stuff of which aphorisms are made.  But it has come back to me, time after time, in the years between.

You see, I like to tell stories.  On quite a large number of occasions in my life I have done something incredibly stupid and landed myself in metaphoric doo-doo, which is the meat for most of my better stories.  Trouble is, these stories frequently involve other people as well.  So, in some sense, my story is their story, too.

Ever had the experience of meeting some total stranger in some distant place only to discover that their sister-in-law lives just around the corner from you?  I suppose it is some version of the idea that, on the average, there are only six degrees of separation between us and every other person in the U.S.

And that, you see, is the problem.  If you are regaling your friends with some story that involves other people, the odds aren’t too bad that someone in your audience might actually know one of the players in your story…or knows somebody who knows somebody who knows that player.  And you have no idea how much of their role in your little story that player would want told, if any.

You may consider the time you got caught with your pants down parking with good old whosis to be killingly funny.  Whosis, now a born-again, true believer, might not like that story to be retold to their spouse…or child…or neighbors.

So I try to remember Aslan’s Rule:  I try to keep the other players in my stories carefully anonymous.  You only have a right to tell your own story.  Nobody else’s.

And no one has the right to tell my story but me.

I confess I am a nut about privacy, so perhaps that skews my viewpoint.  But it seems to me that this is the very essence of privacy:  While you live, you must have control over your own story.  It belongs to no one else to use, to misuse, to retell, or to retail.

There are two current methods of invading privacy that I find particularly egregious as they admit no effective remedy:  Invasion by fame and invasion by law.

In the first case, we have gradually stripped away all of the effective rights of privacy of those we define as “public figures.”  Exactly what qualifies as a “public figure” can be pretty ironic.

Imagine you are associated, however remotely, with someone accused of a crime (or, better yet, a scandal) or a disaster.  You may wake up some day to find TV news people hiding in your rose bushes.  Your defense?  Well, legally you have little.  You are a legal hybrid, a private figure who can be temporarily be legally hounded by reporters.  And should you make the mistake of answering some question shouted at you by one of the ghouls as you get in your car, kiss it off.  By allowing yourself to be “interviewed,” you have made yourself a true “public figure” in the full legal sense of the term.

Ironically, the courts use as a gauge whether the public has a “legitimate interest” in knowing about the activities of someone who has involuntarily made it into the news.  The irony lies in that, having become involuntarily famous, that very fame makes you fair game.  It was once required that it be “in the public interest” before your privacy could be violated.  The standard  now is simply “the public is interested.”

Or take another case.  Imagine you are so terminally shy that you make a living by pretending to be other people.  In other words, you are an actor.  Being the sort of person you are, you are about as poorly equipped by nature to be confronted by a reporter in the check-out line as one can imagine.  If you were not pathologically shy, you wouldn’t be an actor.  However, if you are successful as an actor (i.e. being someone else), you suddenly become a public figure (as yourself).  You have forfeited your anonymity and your rights to privacy in any circumstance that can be construed as public.

Some of the problem here may stem from an ambiguity in our language.  There is a big difference (lost, alas, on our courts) between being merely in public and being involved in a public event.  A politician, actor, or what have you is fair game at any public event.  If you are an actor at the Oscars and your dress falls down (or you do) or your fly is unzipped, expect to see yourself in the morning paper.

Fair enough.

On the other hand, I fail to see how an errand to the cleaners or the drug store qualifies as a public event.  Yes, it is “in public.”  But it is hardly the sort of occasion where public figures are displayed in their public personas.  Exactly why we allow legal stalking of public figures merely because they are not behind locked doors eludes me.  Equally elusive is the quaint idea that using a telephoto lens somehow disinfects from invading someone’s privacy.

On the side of invasion by law, the situation should be much better.  After all, we have a Fourth Amendment that protects us from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  In fact, the loss of privacy protection is arguably much worse in matters legal.  To take what I feel is the most egregious example, let’s look at the situation in regard to sexual harassment.

In a laudable attempt to correct some very real abuses the legislatures and the courts have not only made direct sexual harassment (“sleep with me or you’re fired” being the most clear-cut example) illegal, they have somehow stretched the law to cover creating or maintaining a “hostile work environment.”  Which term is conveniently left up to the “average, reasonable person” of obscenity statute fame.

Why is this a problem?  Let me give two examples out of the Clinton scandal.

Paula Jones charged Clinton with sexual harassment during his term as governor of Arkansas.  Well and good.  A simple question to be decided in a court of law.  However, during the deposition process, trying to find that “hostile work environment,” Clinton was forced not only to detail his meetings with Ms. Jones, he was also required to give the name of everyone he had “dated” during his terms as governor and president (i.e. after any presumptive harassment of Ms. Jones).  He was even required to name everyone he had even approached on the subject.

What counts here, to my mind, was not any invasion of Clinton’s privacy (impossible to both preserve that and decide the case), but to all those women.  They were not parties to the suit.  They had done nothing to get their names dragged through the mud.  Quite possibly without committing any sin, public or private, worse than telling Clinton they were not interested, these women suddenly found themselves “public figures.”  They were open to forced depositions, the invasion of news cameras, and general public humiliation.

In other words, their “story” was suddenly ripped from their control by an inquisitorial judicial procedure with no defined limits:  This is the original “fishing expedition” so disdained by the courts in all other contexts.

On another arena of the same case, Monica Lewinsky had her computer confiscated.  In theory, the lawyers were after e-mail records or other correspondence on the computer that could show the extent of her involvement with Mr. Clinton.  In fact, what was copied from the computer were some drafts of letters she thought about sending him but never sent.  In other words, it was literally her private thoughts that were run off on hardcopy and kept as evidence.

She was promised that these thoughts of her would never be made public.  In fact, the House Committee chose to make them part of the permanent public record.  Whatever ones feelings about Ms. Lewinsky, it is clear that she, too, had been despoiled of her privacy by a judicial process that recognizes no limits in its voracious pursuit of “evidence.”

And that is the rub.

In both of these cases, and in literally hundreds of others, it is the courts themselves that are doing the violating.  The lawyers tell the judge that they need this “evidence” in order to have a fair trial.  It is simply beyond human nature to expect the judges to allow something as diaphanous as the Fourth Amendment to stand between them and the infinitely important goal of having a fair trial in their courtroom.  When presented with such a choice, the courts virtually always opt for “minor” violations of privacy to achieve that fair trial.  And that bias goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, which has allowed such abuses to expand with no defining limits.

The fact is that, in both the eyes of the courts and the majority of the public, violations of privacy are considered as being pretty trivial.  Not really “violations” at all.  In a day when far too many people seem willing to endure any humiliation to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame, how could anyone reasonably complain about having it thrust upon them?


But in interviews with those who have experienced their involuntary moments of fame, the same idea is repeated again and again:  They feel they have been raped.

What can be done about it?  Probably not much.  But let me suggest a couple of things.  First, as regards the paparazzi, I think their should be a law that says that unless it is literally a public event, one must get written permission to take a photo of someone for publication.  Which means it should be illegal in the U.S. to publish such pictures without a copy of that permission.

And the second?

I don’t know.  Certainly we should support every privacy measure that is proposed in the legislature.  But more than that.  We have got to get rid of the idea that an invasion of privacy is trivial.  An amazing number of official people demand information they have no right to.

Tell them to buzz off.

I believe that it is the affirmative duty of every American citizen to zealously guard against any and all such violations of their rights.  You do not have to have “something to hide.”  To my mind, it is your duty to protect your own story against unwarranted intrusion by anyone.  Your own story may be the thing that is most uniquely your own.  It belongs to no one else and no one else has the right to even touch it.

Your story is, in every sense of the word, your life.  We must protect the one with just as much passion and energy as we would to protect the other.

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