Russell Miller, Washington & Lee University Privacy

There are things I’d prefer to keep secret. Unkown. Unspoken. Undisclosed. I would offer some examples, but that would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it.

So we’ll have to leave it at that. There’s some stuff that’s mine and just for me. Of course, the opposite is true, too. There are things I’d like to share. Known. Spoken. Disclosed. It should be easier to give these examples, except that when one gets around to thinking about it there’s so much we expose to the world that it would be hard to settle on just a few instances. To make matters worse, this privacy thing can’t be expressed in simple categorical terms. It’s not either all-private or all-public. So there are degrees, too. And those degrees vary depending on context. Privacy is complicated. I had never seen my mom naked before she got cancer later in life, and then I often helped to bathe her or to clean her after struggling, messy attempts to use the toilet. But she would have wanted me to keep that story out of this essay. She was discrete about those kinds of things.

My mom. There’s a person who knew something about the complexity of privacy. She worked hard to contain her dreadful marriage beneath a fragile front of normalcy. Fulfilling every cliché, she dragged her protesting husband and disinterested sons to church on Sundays. I always thought this show was for others’ consumption, but looking back now I realize that she hadn’t fooled many souls. The show was probably for her. Her own story about her too-tragic life. A private life for personal meaning. Meanwhile, as a nurse for the only doctor in the small town where I grew up, there was very little in the cobbled-together lives of our neighbors that my mom didn’t know about. Once, during one of their terrible fights, my mom spat at my dad: “you have the smallest dick in town.” She would have known.

Maybe all of this is too personal. Maybe it’s making you a little uncomfortable. Sometimes privacy is something you’d like others to value more than they do. I’ve never seen a Facebook page. I imagine being the last living human to visit Facebook. There will be news crews and flashing cameras as the cloth draping a slender computer monitor is pulled away. Everyone will be watching me learn of the pleasures of watching them. When the day comes, I hope you will “like” that video footage. For the time being I am only enjoying Facebook vicariously, as my wife and kids re-present their lives, once lived in some degree of privacy or exposure, but lived again full-frontal online. I wish some of those things had been just for us. For our family. Like the time that camel I attempted ride in Egypt refused to stand up under the weight of yet another paunchy middle-aged tourist. His handler, a skinny, dark-eyed hawker, whipped the beast mercilessly. But the camel just groaned, his stubborn personal protest against the indignities visited upon his beautiful and historic land by the West. That sad and funny scene could have been ours alone. But if you’re lucky enough to be counted among their “friends,” then you can see photos and video clips from that incident and so much else on my family’s Facebook walls. I wonder, since when did a “wall” become a means for revealing, instead of shielding, oneself from the world.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about privacy in the last years. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about the subject in the United States and Germany. All of that has revealed some amazing differences in the two countries’ understanding of privacy. Here are just a few vignettes from the last several years of conversations. I once asked a group of accomplished German university students if they would abolish the state’s intelligence operations and deny the state the authority to conduct clandestine espionage. Unanimously, they would. Once, when lecturing in a small town deep in the former East Germany, I could sense that the crowd did not share the usual German indignation at the surveillance activities of the American NSA. I stopped the lecture and put the question to them straight: “aren’t you outraged that the NSA was collecting the content of all your emails for a decade?” After a few moments of chilly silence a student in the back of the room concluded “here, I guess we just don’t care.” At a panel convened in Karlsruhe in the days immediately following news broke of Edward Snowden’s leaks I dared to suggest that the integrity of some Americans working within the Intelligence Community would lead them to blow the whistle on abuses. This, I suggested with the example of Snowden still fresh before us, was its own kind of informal but not-insignificant check on the spooks and spies. “How could you be so naïve,” hissed someone from the audience. A close colleague begged me to give the book I intended to publish the title “Privacy and Power” and not “Power and Privacy.” “First things first,” he explained. The clerk in the Handschuhsheim City Office, where I was registering my residence with the state as required by German law, asked me to declare my religion as part of the formal registration process. He had a sticker on his bike helmet calling for asylum for Edward Snowden. Polling results say that Germans, among Western developed countries, are least willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience. They are also the most comfortable providing personally identifying information to the government in order to facilitate their participation in the social welfare system. My German friends use pseudonyms for their Facebook accounts. How will I find them when I finally leap into the deep social media sea?  

The point of my “study” these last years seems more remote now that it did when I began the effort. I never believed I would—or even wanted to—discover a common, central core to the notion of privacy in the two countries. That posture proved to be wise. Some things that Americans like to keep close to the vest, the Germans don’t think twice about disclosing. Vice versa. The factors and forces determining these differences and distinctions are so many and so varied, it is impossible to comprehensively document and explain them all. They are them. We are us. So here’s the best conclusion I can offer from these comparative experiences. Privacy cannot be reduced to a single, universal concept. There is no privacy. There are only privacies. And to wish that it could be framed as a universal would be to flirt dangerously with an invasive, totalitarian attitude that itself is necessarily incompatible with privacy. The best we can do is respect others’ private right to determine their own meaning of privacy. With that in mind, I’m sorry, mom, if I said too much.