We hate the idea of someone reading our diaries, but are we entitled to privacy?by Sam Leith / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Many years ago, something happened to me about which I still feel slightly annoyed. I’d been having a sort of thing with a girl, and left her alone in my student room. I got back to find she’d passed the time by reading the private diary I kept at the time; and in the process deduced that I was—quite unrequitedly—in love with another girl altogether. The usual teenage hell broke loose. She was furious and humiliated. I was still more furious and humiliated. How dared she? But then again, how dared I?
It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that my making secret sheep’s eyes at Girl B was far less an offence than Girl A’s failure to respect my privacy. But was it? Why are we sure we have a right to privacy? As the phoney war about superinjunctions rumbles on, it’s worth considering. Even the most prurient red tops, harping on about role models, at least tip their hats to the idea that citizens are entitled to keep their sex and family lives to themselves.
But what are the arguments for that entitlement? Every instinct tells me that it stands to reason—although anything you think “stands to reason” usually doesn’t. Put it this way. Q: Why shouldn’t I know about X’s sex life? A: Because it’s none of my business. The answer does no more than restate the question in different terms.
The pro-privacy feeling is an instinct, not an argument: you hate the idea of everyone knowing your business, so you universalise the principle that they shouldn’t. But is hating the idea of people knowing your business a moral fundamental?
After all, privacy as we understand it is a recent invention. Of slightly longer pedigree is the idea that your body and its labour belongs to you, and that property rights are a public good; but the idea that you have sovereign rights over your conscience—intellectual property in the original sense—isn’t that long established.
Anthropologists distinguish between guilt and shame societies: that is, societies in which the obligation to behave well is interiorised (you consult your conscience, or your God), and those in which people follow social rules because they do not want to appear bad in the eyes of the group.
All societies are a bit of both. But in the modern west, the theory goes, the Reformation (or, perhaps, the habits…