Secrecy Versus Privacy
Is privacy compatible with community? Can secrecy co-exist with intimacy? The Good Wife, a television show reportedly inspired by Eliot Spitzer’s downfall and its aftermath, explores the second question. Not fully, because many of us are still asking that question in the wake of revelations about the pitiful, on-line predations of Congressmen Christopher Lee and Anthony Weiner.
We may wonder what those two were thinking; we can’t help but wonder what their spouses thought, once they learned their husbands had secret lives streaming concurrently and co-terminously with those which they shared. People interested in defending Weiner defended his right to privacy. His activities, however, were not private, they were secret, and secrecy is not the same thing as privacy.
Our form of government was constituted with the express purpose of protecting spheres of privacy, including the sphere of the family. The founding was a re-action, in part, to the ancient republics, both real and imagined, where privacy was banished in the interests of collective, social life. Human nature being what it is, people wanted things of their own, and the republics crumbled, in theory and in fact.
But we still waver between the poles of privacy and community, especially in small towns, where people want to participate in the life around them but still, on occasion, to be left alone. As a local newspaper, we try to foster stronger communities, but we’re also as sensitive as we can be to the need for privacy. (One of our editorial mandates is: if you know about something which should remain private, you don’t need to read about it. If you don’t know by the time it reaches the papers, you probably don’t need to know.)
In a small town, respect for people’s privacy allows us all to navigate the space between the private sphere of the home and the public sphere of the community. In totalitarian societies, secrecy is the bulwark of privacy. “Without secrecy,” the Czech novelist Milan Kundera said in an interview before the collapse of Communism, “nothing is possible — not love, not friendship.” In a police state, friends, family members, even spouses may be agents. One learns to mistrust even one’s nearest and dearest.
Because secrecy is so corrosive of relationships in the private sphere, our society protects privacy in order to make secrecy unnecessary, thereby allowing private life to flourish. Secrecy is a detriment to private life, as too many of our elected officials have, no doubt, already learned.