A.C. Grayling: Veils are for hiding behind- and lifting

It's quite natural to keep our own secrets but also to snoop on others
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tony Blair's concerns about his family's privacy are in tune with the times. Angered by press intrusion into baby Leo's christening, he first threatened to cancel the traditional Second Family summer holiday photocall, and then recanted. According to the Press Complaints Commission, his decision to let the paparazzi get their snaps after all was right, because it "strikes the best balance between legitimate privacy and legitimate public interest".

Tony Blair's concerns about his family's privacy are in tune with the times. Angered by press intrusion into baby Leo's christening, he first threatened to cancel the traditional Second Family summer holiday photocall, and then recanted. According to the Press Complaints Commission, his decision to let the paparazzi get their snaps after all was right, because it "strikes the best balance between legitimate privacy and legitimate public interest".

It is mystifying how photographs of the holidaying Blairs serve any public interest, but it is not mystifying that Mr Blair wishes to ration press access to his family, especially for his children's sake. Growing up is hard enough without doing it in a goldfish bowl of tabloid curiosity.

Yet, like all public figures, Mr Blair lives and dies by press attention, which is his chief conduit to the electorate. He therefore parlays his family privacy to keep the dangerous relationship with the media alive. Images of the Prime Minister as family man are good PR, so the cameras are never likely to be kept from his family for long.

But neither will they linger long, for it seems that New Labour is eager to downplay the personal. Gordon Brown's wedding, like Leo's christening, was a low-key affair; such events would once have been media circuses.

These privacy ambivalences coincide with significant changes in the way government deals with privacy. Jack Straw is equipping the security services with new surveillance powers over our e-mail and internet activities. At the same time, the European Court has just found against the UK in the case of a man prosecuted for gay sex with friends in his own home. This decision has proved crucial in persuading the Home Office to repeal indecency laws that criminalise private sex.

Debate over these matters reflects the divided attitude contemporary society has to privacy. On the one hand, most of us are intensely curious about other people's lives and doings, which explains the relish with which we consume tabloid gossip, TV chat shows where ordinary folk make extraordinary confessions, fictional and "documentary" soap operas (such as the egregious blockbuster Big Brother) - as well as the more traditional staples of films, dramas, biographies and novels. All this data about other people answers an important need continually to research human experience, as a means of informing our sense of self and our own possibilities for living.

At the same time, and in direct contradiction to this healthy and essential voyeurism, humans need privacy as much as they need sustenance. Part of its importance is that it helps us keep at least some control over how we appear to the world. Most of us wish to be liked by others, and accepted into their society. It could be awkward or even disabling to have all one's sentiments and personal habits publicly known, especially any that are embarrassing or conventionally unacceptable. Also, at the outset, one's endeavours are generally too immature to bear outside scrutiny; they need first to be nourished in private.

Few of us, therefore, can function without a private life. In the circle of family or chosen friends we can express ourselves naturally, and behave without artifice; we can relax. A hidden microphone, or a telephoto lens that captures our intimate contacts, is a violation of what is central to personal well-being. Even lovers need to retain a certain privacy from each other; to be unable to have a reserve of selfhood is to be bereft of a self altogether.

Is the contradiction between our voyeurism and our need for privacy a real one? Are we being dishonest in desiring to know about others what we ourselves conceal? I think not. Except in the grey margin between the mainly anonymous lives of the majority and the exhibitionists who clamour to expose themselves on morning television, there is a genuine consistency between our curiosity and our reticence. They are connected; it is precisely because there are things we wish to keep veiled that we wish to peep behind others' veils - to find out whether we are normal, and safe, and whether we are coping or falling short. A kind of negotiation results, a dance of the veils, a transaction essential to us as social animals, in which we simultaneously try to discover as much, and to reveal as little (except to intimates) as we can.

On the larger question of governmental and legal invasions of privacy, matters are clear enough. Properly warranted tapping of e-mail messages is, like telephone or mail interception, an unpalatable but necessary weapon in the fight against crime and terrorism. It is a price we pay for security. Your cyber sex with an e-mailer in Oregon will merely amuse an official eavesdropper, but your plan to blow up Parliament deserves to be detected. By contrast, what any consenting adults do sexually in their own homes, even if it involves what others perceive as "harm" to themselves, is absolutely no one else's business, and it is astonishing to think it ever was. These examples are clear cases on either side of a clear divide. The fact that there will be difficult grey areas in between does not change that. There are always grey areas in everything: they have to be dealt with on their merits, and the only principle that applies in this connection is: when in doubt, let privacy win over curiosity.

AC Grayling is a reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Comments