What’s the point of privacy?

The invasion of our privacy

MUCH has been written – not least on this blog – about the perilous state of our privacy. The problem is that over the past 30 years or so humanity has been slowly infantilized as advertisers, powerful lobbyists, think tanks, the state and social media have infiltrated our brains. According to Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, it was the psychologist B. K. Skinner who realised the political value of it all and ‘viewed the creative and often messy conflicts of politics, especially democratic politics, as a source of friction that threatened the rational efficiency of the community as a single, high functioning super-organism’.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has dubbed the whole phenomenon psycho-politics and, somewhat desperately, called on us to become idiots in the mould of Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ in The Idiot who clashes with the emptiness of 19th century Russian society.

But what if a) it’s too late for us to do anything about our loss of privacy and b) it may not matter too much because we give it too much significance anyway? This is the position of Firmin DeBrabander in Life After Privacy. DeBrabander argues that privacy is both a relatively recent phenomenon and, in a different form, much older than people think. For many, our modern conception of privacy is essential for representative government and requires a ‘legal and physical architecture’ to support it. Drawing on Stoic and early Christian writings, however, DeBrabander claims that the ‘virtues of privacy can be achieved by other means’. He continues: “Stoic philosophy…praises the virtue of emotional resilience and equilibrium.

Battling for emotional resilience

“The Stoics called it ‘constancy’ where one is not over excited or deflated by external events, the opinion of others, or personal interactions.” This is something that some of us at least find difficult to muster, especially when we see injustice. But importantly DeBrabander does not make the mistake of casting the Stoicism as a purely individualistic philosophy recommending that we retreat into ourselves. Rather, the way we interact with our environment and with other people ‘is instrumental to how you transform your mind and behaviour’. It has to be said that for some these principles will be easy to follow but for others…well, less so. But that does mean that they are without value in at least trying to follow them.

This view, writes DeBrabander, is very different from the Liberal turn of mind which ‘conceives citizens as atomistic individuals, responsible for their own values and destiny – who will reason and vote accordingly’. Another narrative, he claims, and one much closer to Stoicism, has it that we ‘develop the competency for autonomy through our social interactions with other persons’.

DeBrabander draws a distinction between the two as being the difference between the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ sense of privacy. In the first it is assumed that we must ‘protect the space of individual freedom’ where we can do whatever we like as long as we don’t harm others, as John Stuart Mill put in his Harm Principle. In contrast DeBrabander writes: “Rather, we must reconnect to the values, virtues, norms, and habits of democratic life, in order to produce citizens who can better withstand the efforts of manipulation and control.” Indeed, as far as he is concerned, this is the only realistic way of containing the machinations of the State and Big Tech because as atomistic individuals we are vulnerable to manipulation, as Hannah Arendt noted in her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism.

For centuries political liberals have conceived us as being first and foremost individuals and, in one iteration, argue that under social contract theory, society is ‘formed when individuals, after independent reflection, decide to contract together’. But DeBrabander will have none of this: “I suspect, rather, that we are social through and through.” For him the public sphere is where our true humanity thrives – in what the ancient Athenians called the Agora.

The glories of the Agora – apart from the slave bit obviously!

For the Athenians the private space was for the idiotes and was the realm of privation, of the unskilled and ignorant. For sure, we need solitude to restore our reflective selves, but this is far from the isolation and loneliness engendered by classical liberalism and is a by-product of democracy not fundamental to it. As DeBrabander writes: “A democracy worthy of the name requires that people are invested in policy-making decisions, and in the elevation and pursuit of guiding ideals.” Further: “To the extent that we have privacy or anything that approaches it, like the solitude conducive to thought, it relies on public action, interaction, and sustenance.”

The conclusion of all this is not that, as Han have it, that we must become Idiots – and certainly not in the sense that it was meant by the ancient Athenians – but, rather, that we reclaim the public sphere or Agora whence we can seek positive solitude when necessary, not have loneliness foisted on us.

It’s hard not to look to the deliberative democracy practiced every month by Salisbury Democracy Alliance at its Salisbury and Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafés or the Citizens’ Assembly it ultimately want to create and equate that with DeBrabander ‘s notion of people being ‘involved in public policy-making decisions’. At the same time one cannot help but wonder whether it’s too late, in the same way that it’s too late for our current concerns about privacy. But to quote the Ingenious Gentleman himself: “I know not whether I ought to avow myself the good one, but I dare venture to assent that I am not the bad one.” And maybe that’s just enough for us to continue tilting at windmills!

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