Friday, June 11, 2010

Sex in Public

What is privacy in an age of GPS, blogging, Twitter, reality television, and post-9/11 security issues?

Is the natural right to privacy becoming obsolete in a show-all, tell-all, nothing-to-hide new era?

I have some thoughts.  They are tentative answers to these questions, off-the-cuff responses to a complicated moral, legal, and social issue.

Privacy is what it has always been, the right to autonomy, the "right to be let alone."  And, yes, citizens of the present century, who view privacy as posing greater risks than benefits, seem to be friendlier to the idea of its no longer being protected under law.

First, let me try to distinguish privacy and secrecy.  Secrecy is the practice of hiding or concealing.  As far as I know, there is no right to secrecy.  Democratic states are allowed to keep secrets in the interests of security and the public good (and only in those interests), but this is not a right--it is a privilege accorded by law, given the consent of the people.

In addition, we are usually allowed to keep secret what we wish to keep private,  though privacy does not always require secrecy--and not every secret is related to a person's privacy.

Privacy, as I said, is the right not to be interfered with by others.

Two dogs may fuck in public--they are not keeping the act secret, yet they might very well object angrily or cower fearfully if we try to interrupt them.  So far our laws, through their silence on the matter, accord dogs the privilege of not having to keep their coupling secret.  It's a privilege usually denied to humans, perhaps unfairly, perhaps even in violation of our natural rights.  Public displays of affection among human beings are expected to be oblique and symbolic (through dress, dance, kissing, speech, etc.), which are not in fact sex acts.

However, the dogs' privacy is not protected under law.  We are free to photograph them in coitus without their consent; we can even pull them apart, if we dare, if we don't happen to like what they're doing, and the law will do nothing to stop us.

Human beings, however, cannot legally and should not ethically be meddled with like this, even if we happen not to like what they're doing.

(Children are often taken to be a different matter.  They are frequently imposed upon by adults, without their consent--legally under the pretext of moral education or proprietary interest.  The law does little or nothing to protect children's privacy.  Adults may pick them up without their consent and strictly prevent them from acting on their free will, even in the pursuit of interests that we regard as rights when practiced by adults.  In this respect, perhaps pro-lifers ought, consistent with their claim that even fetuses are already persons with all due rights, to respect the autonomy and privacy of the born, as well, regardless of their age ... that is, if they are supposed to be in fact fully persons.  The fact that so few care about children's right to privacy is another indication that a right to be let alone is and has been at best only peripheral in the American conscience.)

In recent years, torture or extreme interrogation techniques have been proposed as means of obtaining secrets that may (we are often told) be crucial in the protection of thousands of lives.  To say the least, torture is a violation of a person's privacy.  Proponents of the necessity of extreme and invasive interrogation techniques often state that the secrets are more important than the individual's autonomy and privacy--even in cases when it is unclear whether the individual has secrets to discover.  Here is one area where we see the public support for a right to privacy deteriorating in recent years.

The high interest our culture shows in people's personal business is relatively new, historically speaking.  In the past communal living was the norm, and individuals kept their private affairs secret only with great difficulty, yet, with some exceptions, society left them alone.  Supermarket tabloids and reality television succeed in part because we have become a society of voyeurs.  Celebrities live in the public eye, but the extent to which the public has a right to intrude upon them or meddle in their affairs should be decided by the celebrities themselves.  We expect the famous to be role models and exhibitionists at the same time--neither expectation respects their right to privacy.  The public may want a tell-all book, but a celebrity is under no compulsion to write one--or to cooperate in the writing of one.

According to my understanding of privacy, a person who chooses to disrobe and masturbate on video and upload that video on the Internet is unveiling what most other people would prefer to keep covert and secret.  But she would be entirely within her rights still to object should a peeping Tom look uninvited through her shutters as she does so.  She has a right to privacy, even if she chooses not to be secretive.  Her video is an autonomous act of free will, but being watched without her consent is a violation of her privacy.

To the question of whether government or corporate wiretapping is ever permissible, many people will say, "If I have nothing to hide, why should I care whether the FBI reads my e-mail?"  This only begs the question.  Even if I am comfortable having no secrets, I still have a right to privacy.  I might say, "Ask me anything and I'll tell you everything," but the disclosure is, in this case, a free and autonomous act on my part.  For the government (or Facebook) to intrude upon my life, without my expressed and well advised consent, I may be thought to have no right to privacy at all.

If I pass through airport security, knowing that there are cameras that see through my clothing, I am not exactly sacrificing my privacy--if, that is, my knowledge of the surveillance is a tacit form of consent.  This example is tricky, though, since a refusal to give up my privacy will prevent me from traveling--a pointed affront to my autonomy.  The full body search may be all right if I have other options, more problematic when intrusiveness and meddling are mandatory in every mode of transportation available to me.

My willingness to share personal information (on my blog, for instance) that others might prefer to keep secret in no way diminishes my right to privacy.  It is wrong and illegal for me to assault a professional boxer, even though he trades punches every day in the ring.  Likewise, I cannot rape a prostitute or escort; such behavior is beyond the pale of decency and law.  What a person does by consent cannot legally be coerced.

Even if no harm is done, apart from the fact that my privacy is breached, it is not only my right but also my duty to object.

Still, there are real and serious problems with privacy.  It poses risks (as, by the way, all rights do).  There is a risk that my partner may give me AIDS.  There is a risk that my employees are cheating me out of money.  There is a risk that otherwise law-abiding citizens may have secret information that could save the lives of thousands of innocent people.

I suppose the question is, for those of us who acknowledge privacy as a natural right, whether its benefits are worth its risks.

1 comment:

  1. I've always puzzled over the issue of children's rights, which you mention here in passing. It's odd to me that, for all of the American fight and fondness for personal liberties, we are surprisingly unwilling to extend those rights to children. And the way that we seem to view children as property more than people.

    Try giving a child the right not to be physically assaulted (as every other human being has), and you're somehow infringing upon his parents' rights to discipline as they see fit. But for whatever reason, the child has no rights at all, even if he objects to being assaulted in the name of good parenting.

    We are a strange lot, Americans.



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