Our Secret Selves

In the eyes of my fellows, I am a solid citizen:  sober, hardworking and respectable.  But if they could read my secret thoughts, they would know me to be a monster of depravity.

That somewhat paraphrased quote (I am still looking for the original) neatly captures a profound truth about human nature.  Each of us carries a set of secret thoughts, daydreams or fancies that we sternly suppress.  We worry what buried perverse drives they reveal.  Many of us harbor the dark fear that our inner urges might, in some moment of weakness, reveal themselves to those around us.

This seems to be universal in healthy human beings.

At a somewhat less profound level, many of us have urges we are willing to indulge, if they can be indulged without disclosing ourselves.  Outwardly respectable people dress up in bizarre costumes for sex play, watch strange videos or have caches of pornography.  More trivially, a fantastic number of cultured people share a hidden love for the tabloids.

In our wonderfully paradoxical way, many of us would pay good money for to acquire things that we privately feel the world would be better off if they were unavailable to us.  We are fully aware that when we indulge we are pandering to parts of ourselves we deplore.

This is not to say that we want Big Brother to come and take our pornography away.  We simply feel that in a nicer world no one would be taking pictures of ladies doing improbable things with dogs to sell us.

Another aspect of the paradoxical: While we might pay good money to have our perverse curiosities catered to, we feel a profound contempt for the people who are so base as to do so.

Which brings us to the ghouls (they masquerade as news people).  I might look at the scenes on TV of some poor woman who has lost a child in some gruesomely pointless fashion and wonder what on earth she can be feeling.  When some egregious cretin sticks a microphone in her face and asks her that question, I am shocked and disgusted.

The fact that I might want to know something does not mean that that desire should be satisfied.  Still less does it mean that my curiosity confers on someone a RIGHT to satisfy it..  Some years back a British commentator noted that there is a profound distance between “In The Public Interest” and “The Public Is Interested.”

I am sure there are people in this world who would love to see bloody pictures of Princess Diana in that Mercedes.  I imagine that there are some who would pay for color pictures of the surgery that failed to save her.  Does that mean that the ghouls have a right to take such pictures and other ghouls the right to publish them?

In my judgment, it does not.  The mere fact that someone is curious and might pay for some piece of dirty news does not mean that the purveyors at all levels are instantly exempted from all restraints.

Precisely because there is no limit to the perversity of human curiosity, there have to be limits on its satisfaction.

Centuries of cultural development have installed a check rein on human curiosity.  We call it Privacy.  We say that this is public and open to anyone’s curiosity and that is private and may not be violated without the owner’s permission.  The limits are quite arbitrary and occasionally unsettling.  For instance, by being peripherally involved in a crime and commenting on it to a reporter, you can be construed as a public figure and forfeit many of your privacy rights, as many near the OJ Simpson trial found out to their sorrow.

Privacy is one of the most profound inventions of human civilization. Today it is under a relentless and largely successful attack with modern technology leading the way.  If you are deemed a public figure, long lenses can violate your expectations of privacy and you have no recourse.  You can be stalked 24 hours a day and there is almost nothing you can do about it.

It used to be that a telephone implied a private conversation. But cell phone conversations of the famous are regularly revealed in the press.  It used to be that a closed car (carriage) implied an assumption of privacy.  Now Paparazzi can chase you at high speed, flashing bulbs at you and forcing you into ever more stupid actions to escape them.

For those of us with more mundane lives, our credit records can be electronically accessed.  Our purchasing histories are routinely sold to marketeers to better tailor ad campaigns.  Our medical records are available to our employers, HMO employees and any others with moderate hacking skills.

For me at any rate, the problem has somehow been stood upon its head.  Each new technology pushes the limits of privacy further back.  Somehow it is construed that as soon as we have the power to invade another area, we have the right to.  The victims are left to feebly protest the invasion after the fact.

That’s backwards: You shouldn’t have to defend your right to privacy.  It should be assumed.   They should have to justify their invasion of it.  At the front end.  And just because you are led to open some part of your life to the public’s gaze should not, in my view, mean that you have automatically forfeited your rights in all other areas.

Let me suggest that the next time you see the embarrassing and unflattering pictures of some celebrity on display at the check stand, you might reflect how your rights are being raped along with theirs.

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