The Privacy Paradox

To divulge or disappear? It's a basic American question.

| March-April 2000

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago pointed out in Democracy in America a difference between Europeans and Americans: the reticence of Europeans to speak freely for the record, and the willingness of Americans to give their opinions on a wide range of issues, even those of which they know little. At our century’s beginning, not only tendering opinions, but also baring personal narratives in public places has become a problem. The endless stream of television programs that feature revelations of sexual preferences and longings, marital breakdowns and extramarital affairs, all move America far from merely registering public opinion surveys and into expressing in public what in all past eras would have been viewed as sacrosanct and privileged. The English tradition, or what is left of that tradition, of a high wall between public and private, has broken down. Public expression of private woes is in part an expression of dissatisfaction with the rewards of private, nonexpressive life.

Perhaps it is time to recognize limits to this openness. That high wall is itself a protection of liberty that extends far beyond mores and customs. The habits, customs, and mores of individuals, even more than juridical and legal safeguards, are the best defenses of privacy against incursions of presumed public needs in the cyberspace age. In brief, the new technology poses with stark relief problems posed by the old totalitarianism.

Privacy issues, elevated to a fever pitch by the infusion of high technology bonded by networking, will sink back into a secondary realm when individuals recapture the first principles of classical ethics and constitutional law. The founding fathers had it right: This is not a question of choice, either for privacy or for publicity, but of safeguarding the person while extending the realm of information and knowledge. In this, they were following the precepts of the Hebrew prophets. As God reveals and conceals, so human beings disclose and withhold. Taken to the extreme, privacy results in isolation and denies the social bases of human existence. At the other extreme, unlimited communication and the end of privacy leave the human subject depleted of self, of personality. Both unbridled solipsism and pure collectivism are forms of spiritual decay and ultimately death.

The tensions exacerbated by the new information technology illustrate the strains of maintaining some semblance of balance within American democracy. Seen in this light, technology is another classic case of advances and breakthroughs that can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. It is the terribly slow pace of ethical responsibility for self and others, rather than the amazingly fast pace of information technology in American society, that needs close and serious examination. For while the content of the privacy versus publicity debate is universal and long-standing, its context has become uniquely American and short-fused.



Irving Louis Horowitz is the Hannah Arendt Distinguished University Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Rutgers University. From ETC: A Review of General Semantics (Fall 1999). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues) from International Society for General Semantics, Box 728, Concord, CA 94522.