When we talk about privacy, we tend to frame the discussion in terms of “rights,” or sometimes as a constitutional issue. In the political process, people do need to understand the concept within these contexts. But have you ever stopped to think about the more fundamental importance of privacy?
Why is our ability to maintain privacy really so important?
Because it drills down to the very core of what it means to be an individual.
The ability to carve out our own space, free from interference or uninvited intrusion, allows each of us to separate ourselves from the proverbial herd. Privacy forms a part of the concept of self-ownership, the idea that each individual has a basic right to direct her or his own life, and follow the dictates of his or her own conscience. Self-ownership becomes impossible when we cannot maintain our own space – both for our physical selves and our thoughts. At that point, we become merely possessions belonging to whatever entity has the power to violate our privacy.
Simply put – some things belong to us and nobody else should have access to them without our consent. That boundary preserves our autonomy as self-directing individuals.
In The Blind Giant, author Nick Harkaway eloquently captures the essence of privacy.
Privacy is a protection from the unreasonable use of state and corporate power. But that is, in a sense, a secondary thing. In the first instance, privacy is the statement in words of a simple understanding, which belongs to the instinctive world rather than the formal one, that some things are the province of those who experience them and not naturally open to the scrutiny of others: courtship and love, with their emotional nakedness; the simple moments of family life; the appalling rawness of grief. That the state and other systems are precluded from snooping on these things is important – it is a strong barrier between the formal world and the hearth, extended or not – but at root privacy is a simple understanding: not everything belongs to everyone.
Stripping away privacy leads to a radical form of collectivism where absolutely everything belongs to everyone – even our most intimate thoughts and actions. As a result, the individual loses all significance. The concept of individual worth and individual value flies out the window. And when the significance of the individual disappears, it can lead to tragic consequences, especially for minorities: genocide, slavery and exploitation.
When I speak, I often tell the story of Joshua Glover. He escaped slavery in Missouri and walked some 350 miles to Wisconsin. For reasons known only to him, Joshua decided to put down roots in a small town on Lake Michigan called Racine. He got a job at a sawmill, and part of his compensation was a small, one-room home. It wasn’t much more than a shack. But it was his.
I often wonder how Joshua must have felt when he walked into that little shanty, closed the door behind him and locked it for the first time. Never before had he been able to shut out the rest of the world. For the first time, he had a place that was exclusively his. He let in whom he pleased. He kept out whom he pleased.
He had privacy.
Stop and think about that.
Joshua Glover risked everything for the opportunity to have privacy.
We should fight to keep ours.