If you ask people why privacy is important – which is exactly what I have been doing as part of a research project I’m working on – one of the answers you sometimes hear is that it is crucial for the sustenance of democracy. At the most basic level, our votes in elections are private, but the people with whom I’ve been talking mean more than this. What they mean is that the kind of personhood, or selfhood, that democracies envisage is one that requires privacy. Having privacy enables you to be yourself, to express yourself anonymously if you want to, to experiment, to be creative, to nurture your own personality… For this reason, they say, privacy is important, and it is essential that we safeguard it as a human right.
For me, though, this raises a question about the historicity of privacy as a value. Is privacy now important because we live in democracies? What about people who do not live in a democracy? We can be sure that they enjoy less privacy than those in the democratic west, but does the absence of democracy mean that privacy is no longer to be considered important in relation to those people? Or are we to understand that privacy is important to all human beings irrespective of their country’s political regime and that the privacy of all people is to be safeguarded no matter when and where they live? I find this kind of statement hard to endorse. The notion of privacy I mentioned above is a distinctly modern one. I suggest that it would make little sense to apply it to a farmer in 14th century England, for instance.
So there is an interesting tension here between privacy as a purportedly fundamental right that enables the full and free expression of our selves, and privacy as a value with a historical, social and cultural context. This is a tension I shall explore more in future posts.