Monday, April 19, 2010

The value of Privacy

Would you have a problem living in a house with glass walls? How about having all your conversations audible to all who are interested?

Most people, if not all, would find it very disturbing.

Why is it that people care so much about other eyes and other ears invading their space? Is it a weakness that needs to be overcome? An indication that one is not confident enough or that one does not have an independent mind?
Is it because one is ashamed of certain things and wants to deceive the world or hide one's identity?

No - to all of those. Not as the general answer to the question of the value of privacy.

Privacy is required for the protection of one's mental experience from foreign elements that can interfere, damage or destroy it.

I am not talking here of obvious things such as noise or people physically standing in one's way. Obviously, if a place is so crowded as to not allow one to spend time standing comfortably next to someone else or hear what they say, that is a disvalue. To understand the value of privacy as such I eliminate such conditions and concentrate only on the silent presence of the consciousness of other people, similar to how it would be like if your life were recorded and broadcasted over the internet.

So when I say that the presence of the consciousness of others is enough to disturb an experience, that is the sort of situation I am talking about.

In what way, you may ask, can the consciousness of others disturb our mental experience? These people are, in this hypothetical situation, just sitting there.

The answer is that keeping in mind the mental experience of others creates an emotional response which will mix with the emotional response to any experience. For example, suppose you are dancing to a favorite song of yours, you think you are all alone and let yourself loosen up and express your feelings when all of a sudden you spot someone looking at you, smiling. Their expression introduces into your mind a whole different universe than your own - a different way of looking at things, of judging things and feeling about them. So while you may value your dance a lot and see it as something precious, the person you caught looking at you may see it as something silly. While it may be entirely OK with you for someone else to consider something you do silly, at that moment of experiencing your own world so ecstatically, having the emotional view of someone else shoved into your mind is the mental equivalent of a punch to the face. Holding the two sets of emotions at the same time regarding something precious to you is very unpleasant.
In the rare case of having one's world view shared by a stranger the experience of "invasion of privacy" will be significantly reduced. However, in general privacy is a value because one cannot assume that strangers out there in the street share one's view of life or share the understanding of the meaning of one's actions.

Even if one has a fiercely independent mind, sharing one's emotions about a value (like being in love) with someone who would not understand it (or even ridicule it) would be a very unpleasant experience simply because of experiencing colliding emotions simultaneously.

You may ask further, why would anyone consider the experience of someone else? So what if I spotted this person looking at me - do I have to think about their expression? The answer is; yes, we do. We do this automatically.
We don't have to think further of the meaning of the expression we saw, but the initial understanding of what it stands for happens automatically in our subconscious.

Privacy is a value because we can act and pursue our values knowing that our experience will not be disturbed by foreign elements.

This remains true for wanting privacy with someone else. A couple having sex, for example, ideally share each others world perfectly. Knowing what the other is experiencing is a celebration of one's own experience - an enhancement of it. But if a group of strangers were to gather around in a stadium-like arrangement watching the act, that would introduce a foreign element. Those strangers can never possibly share the mutual understanding the couple has. The content of the crowd's mind is a foreign element that interferes with the concentration on the mind of the partner.

So... does it make sense to share your vulnerable moments and your precious experiences only with your close friends or those you trust would understand it? Yes, it does. Does honesty requires that one broadcasts everything openly to all? It most certainly does not. Honesty as a virtue has its context - and the context is a selfish pursuit of one's values.

In light of all of this, I find two more related topics interesting to analyze.

One is artists - especially of the performing arts. Art, unlike other professions, involves an open expression of the artist's emotions, view of life and personality. One can dance or perform mechanically, but to make it good one must open up and express fully one's emotions.
In the performing arts the dancer or actor must do it in front of a live audience. There is no privacy shielding one's inner world from others, save the fact that the setting is such that everyone expects the performer to act this way, and one is necessarily aware that others are watching their actions. I think a good dancer/ actor must therefore have the following two components: 1. The ability to maintain focus on their inner world despite a watching audience. 2. A positive view, as a whole, of the audience.
Without a recognition that somebody out there understands what the performer is doing and can admire it, there would be no motivation to "open up" and offer what one has inside to the world.

Second is pornography. In writing this piece I've come across the question of how come the people who play porn have no problem with the lack of privacy in having sex? The answer is, I believe, that they seek intimacy with a collective, based on a very shallow level of values. When a couple requires privacy it's because they want to guard the mutual understanding that they have about each other, and they want to be admired for those things they understand about each other. When one is having sex with a stranger for all to see - one has no understanding with a partner. Instead what they seek is admiration from a collective - being wanted by an abstraction represented by an unknown collective - based on the value of their physical appearance. They might even project on the crowd whatever values they want to be had for, but there is no need for privacy because in this sort of sex there is nothing to guard. In fact, if somebody shows up that knows the porn star well, that might be what they would want to guard themselves against, because that, ironically, threatens the abstract sexual relationship with people "out there".


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more interesting articles, please donate to keep the blog running and renewing. Thanks for your support and appreciation.


  1. I believe one's ability to reason is proportional to the extent that one's conscious mind is capable of accessing information, assumptions and guiding principles stored in the unconscious mind. If I am a parent appropriately disciplining my child in a public mall and start to feel anxious because I can feel people staring at me because they think I am being too harsh, should I cease the discipline, feel guilty, or try to justify myself to the onlookers? I would argue no. If I felt confident that my discipline was fair, in the best interest of my child and was not guided by blind emotion such as frustration or anger, then let them stare and judge. Perhaps the stares come from the type of parent who believes that one's child should be one's best friend, and that children are sensitive and need to be treated very carefully so as not to break them. After assessing these and other potential factors, I should either not feel anxiety because there is no contradiction in my own actions, or I should side with the onlooker and be responsible to rectify my actions if I cannot justify my actions (and realize that I feel anxiety because my disciplining may have come from frustration or anger.)
    To say that "having the emotional view of someone else shoved into your mind is the mental equivalent of a punch to the face" is interesting because it implies that a rational person is incapable of preventing another person's emotional view from penetrating their own mind. I would understand this scenario if a rational argument made by Bill could not be ignored by rational Betty, and made her feel anxiety or unease because of a contradiction in her belief system. The argument that privacy is necessary so that our inner mental focus not be disrupted by another's potentially irrational emotional view, does to me, seem like a weakness. (Which I by no means pretend to never have fallen victim to). But this need not be the way we have to behave. In their first meeting, Roark, upon being asked by Toohey what Roark thought of him, replied "But I don't think of you Toohey". (i'm paraphrasing from memory here). Although I enjoyed your writing, I do not see why we should care what someone thinks emotionally if we ourselves are being reasonable.

  2. "If I am a parent appropriately disciplining my child in a public mall and start to feel anxious because I can feel people staring at me because they think I am being too harsh, should I cease the discipline, feel guilty, or try to justify myself to the onlookers? I would argue no."

    I think that it is best to seek a way to do it privately. There are several reasons. The most important one has to do with your child (hypothetical child).
    Reproaching a child publicly damages the child's potential relationship with other people - like say, if his friends are at the mall. It adds an additional punishment to the reproach which may make the kid feel like it's him against the world, when he should be thinking "my parent is reproaching me because ultimately they love me and want me to act right".

    Secondly, other people do not have the same context as you do. Even if they are rational they still don't know what you know about the situation and might get a different impression of what is going on. If there is no rational way in which they can get a bad impression, then yeah, I'd say, no reason to worry. Otherwise, it makes sense to try to prevent misunderstandings when they can rationally occur.

    Many people try to put a fake persona in public and turn themselves into a ball of paranoia, trying to adjust to every person passing them by (or at least their sub-culture). That is obviously wrong. But just because this type exists doesn't mean we need to declare "screw everyone! I don't care what anyone thinks of me if I stand naked in the middle of the mall!".
    One needs to find the balance of what can be rationally misunderstood and stay away from that and what is improper compliance with other people's standard.

    The opposite of "social paranoia" is not "social indifference" (though I'm sure at some point I thought it was).
    People do matter to us (especially close people) and it makes perfect sense to take under account their own context and opinion of our actions.

    Stay tuned for part two of my reply..

  3. "To say that "having the emotional view of someone else shoved into your mind is the mental equivalent of a punch to the face" is interesting because it implies that a rational person is incapable of preventing another person's emotional view from penetrating their own mind"
    I think the reason it is impossible to banish it entirely from one's mind is that our subconscious maintains focus on things which influence our lives. A plant on the other room, or a person on the other side of the city have no affect on us. A man behind a glass wall observing our sexual life - will most likely have influence over our future (though I'd hate to look too much into this hypothetical example seeing how arbitrary and bizarre this situation is).
    Also, when staring at someone's face it is impossible not to experience their "presence" (reaction to us, emotions and thoughts) - those things are picked up by our subconscious automatically (exception are people with brain disability who are unable to read expressions entirely).

    So for these reasons I don't think it's a weakness to be unable to "get rid" of such thoughts.

    Roark didn't care about the Dean - he would sure care if the Dean was there when he and Dominique were having, say, an intimate conversation.
    Why? Because in such a situation this stranger can easily interrupt at any moment, make his face seen, insert a remark of what he thinks and so on and that would create that emotional collision I was talking about.
    Even if one's life is recorded and broad-casted over the internet - that ultimately has an effect on one's life (What's her name comes to mind... thin blond that had a sex tape online and ended up a celebrity. I forgot her name).

    I might have more to write on this later.