Don’t be glib about privacy rights

Even though a fart can only be smelt and not seen, most of us prefer doing it in private. The same goes for many bodily functions and activities: taking a quick private glance at a soiled tissue before chucking it, having sex in the privacy of an enclosed space or crying alone, perhaps occasioned by something that has hurt us deeply.

We also often prefer privacy when we wish to express joy: a long, intimate, loving embrace with a partner with whom you share the news of a promotion at work; telling your best friend that your cancer is in remission; breaking bread with friends when celebrating a major milestone or even just a birthday; giggling with delight, in hushed quasi-private tones, as you share fantasies and jokes and gossip with your naughtiest of friends with whom you have special bonds that allow your innermost thoughts and feelings to be revealed without fear of reprisal.

Privacy facilitates the expression of bits of who we are that we do not perform publicly.

One could construct an imaginary parallel world in which the need for privacy, as we have come to know and experience it, does not arise this sharply.

It is important, however, to sometimes reflect on the world as it is. A recognisably human life in our world is one in which valuing the right to privacy is crucial, precisely because we step out into the public sphere for a large part of the day and thereby experience constraints on our privacy rights.

We have so many different values and principles that are the basis of our individual identities, and the choices we each make privately that shape our truest selves, that the public space is an awkward meeting place of differentiated selves.

In public, we accept that we must give up some privacy to allow us all to coexist.

It seems, however, that advances in technology, and social media in particular, have started to erode our private spheres in ways that may yet cost all of us if we do not guard against unjustifiable privacy infringements that are patently not of legitimate interest to a voyeuristic public.

The politician who lost a limb during apartheid does not deserve to also suffer the loss of privacy, and the accompanying anxiety, of seeing images of their naked body travelling digitally. It would be great if body shaming and “ableism” did not exist. But these menaces are features of our vicious public sphere.

Consequently, what is usually part of the private enjoyment of someone’s sexuality can become an object of ridicule, shaming and public spectacle. Technology allows privacy to be lost more quickly than Bafana Bafana manage to lose crunch soccer matches.

If someone cheats on his wife and evidence of the indiscretion is maliciously shared on a public platform, we undermine our collective respect for the right to privacy by tweeting and retweeting, happily and callously, what ought to remain within the private sphere.

There are legitimate exceptions to this. If I harm someone privately and break the law, then I deserve for the details to emerge publicly. In such an instance, society’s interest in sanctioning unlawful or grossly unethical behaviour trumps the general value of privacy. The right to privacy cannot be absolute.

If I raped someone, my ordinary right to privacy is subordinated to a victim’s right to justice. If I steal from the state or participate in a network of relations with others who loot from society, then my ordinary right to meet people privately at the Saxonwold shebeen must crumble under the overriding entitlement of society to punish my criminality.

If, however, I enjoy masturbating every day while looking at photos of Luther Vandross, that is none of your business, unless I invite you to come and share my orgasmic joy.

There is, however, a grey area. If a president cheats on his wives, am I entitled as a citizen to know that he did so? Is it my business? If a trade union boss cheats on his wife, am I entitled to know that he did so? I cannot see the obvious argument for why I am entitled to know.

If a woman member of the executive has a relationship with younger men, am I entitled to know she has a penchant for intergenerational romps? An affirmative answer requires careful argument and not mere assertion in a fit of virtue signalling. 

Of course, as Pumla Gqola argues in Reflecting Rogue, romanticising the agency of those who are abused by the powerful is a moral misstep. We have to dissect power publicly. It is possible to do so, I would argue, without inadvertently crushing the general value of privacy.

The privacy rights of elected officials can most obviously be justifiably limited in instances where their behaviour at issue relates to their job performance.

Absent such a connection with their public role, a morbid fascination with the moral imperfections of politicians is at best childish and at worst a refusal to think carefully about the place of privacy in our society.

Such a life will be messy unless you are the world’s first wholly virtuous human being, in which case you have not yet been born. 

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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