Tiffany Jenkins: Not only duchesses need privacy
THE time has come for us all to respect ourselves more and demand a less observed life, writes Tiffany Jenkins.
The holiday antics of the royal family hold little interest for me. As a republican, I would rather they did not exist at all. And, as a defender of a free press, the reaction to the publishing of topless photographs of Kate Middleton, which has seen French police raid offices of Closer magazine, who ran them, is of some concern.
Still, it is a serious problem if a woman cannot sunbathe wearing the bikini bottoms of her choice, in the privacy of the home and gardens of a friend, without being spied on by an unknown photographer and secretly snapped from a great distance. So I will defend the right of the Duchess of Cambridge to a moment’s respite from the eye of the camera lens, and from those of us who salivate behind it.
For this is more than a tabloid fuss. It’s about the need for a private life – a space where we can truly be alone. The distinction between the public and private sphere has its roots in the writings of Aristotle, but it was in the late 18th century, and with increasing prosperity which meant people could afford to live in such a way, that it came to be understood that privacy was important.
It meant that, to a degree, people could conduct their private affairs behind closed doors. There was an acknowledgement that this was an important spiritual need, which allowed the individual and relationships to develop, and that it was a space where people could relax, be off-guard, which in turn improved their contribution to public life.
According to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, privacy helps to shore up psychological and social depth. Time spent together without scrutiny is important to relationships. Our ideas and opinions need to be tried out and tested before they go public. If we think someone else is listening in, ideas and actions become distorted. “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others,” writes Arendt, becomes “shallow”.
The private sphere separates and contains things that cannot withstand the constant presence of others and preserves our dignity. And it reinforces the important public sphere by establishing boundaries.
Kate Middleton and her husband, then, have good reason to be angry and to complain, even though their actions will do little to stop an intrusion that has already happened, and despite the fact that they are privileged and manipulate the media themselves.
But it’s not just about them. The broader problem that encouraged this voyeurism, and which needs to be faced, is an unhealthy appetite for what people do without the watchful eye of others. Indeed, this incident has shone a light on how salacious that hunger is. Any sympathetic reaction to the Kate Middleton snaps just shows up a serious lack of awareness about the need to defend our own terrain.
To put it simply: we care more about the privacy of the duchess, of celebrities, than our own. But paupers need privacy too.
Today, it is seen as suspicious to want to shut people out; odd, if we are a bit secretive. The buzz words of the moment are “openness” and “transparency”. Abuse and neglect happen when people are left alone to their own devices, it is said. Besides, so it goes, if you have nothing to hide, then what is the problem?
Just look up and around you. We are endlessly watched, filmed and tracked, forever traceable by people we do not know for reasons that are not clear. All of us – rich or poor, are scrutinised by thousands of CCTV cameras, subjected to the gathering of data by companies, as well as the monitoring of online activity. Entering art galleries and libraries, we are often required to pass our bag under a scanner, or empty it altogether. Edinburgh and Glasgow airports have installed body scanning. Cookies track our clicks and monitor our likes. Both the state and private corporations rarely let us out of their sight.
Recent research, based on the study of 2,000 secondary schools and academies, by Big Brother Watch, found that there are more than 100,000 CCTV cameras in secondary schools in England, Wales and Scotland. In Scotland some sense of decency prevailed in that no cameras were found to have been installed in the changing rooms and toilets, unlike England and Wales where they were. But there was no front page outrage about the cameras on these children.
William Webster, an academic at Stirling University, and director for the Centre for Research into information, surveillance and privacy, researches the “surveillance revolution”, and the proliferation of cameras. He draws attention to just how little we know and the uncertainty this can create, noting how difficult it is to count how many CCTV cameras there are, as they take so many different forms, with different owners; some with people behind them, others are faceless.
In Privacy: A Manifesto, the German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky details how, in the name of questionable ideas of security and a repressive ambition to achieve bureaucratic efficiency, Western democracies have jettisoned the idea of “the private citizen”.
Unlike under totalitarianism, with which Sofsky is more than familiar, the contemporary invasion of our privacy does not bring bodily harm, arrest or assassination, but there are consequences. It harms “our autonomy and self-possession” he argues. Sofsky points out our own contribution to this sorry state of our affairs. We call for such protections: “The worst offender is the individual who, demanding protection, attention and convenience, willingly gives up her privacy.”
Not only do we ask to be watched in the name of protection and safety, there is something even odder going on. The relationship between the watcher and the watched, between those exposed and the exposer is further complicated by our own actions. Too often we say more than we should, show more than is necessary, without being asked. We make confession after confession, coughing up too much information. There are the blogs, the endless self-disclosure in front of our own web-cams. When and where will it end?
Popular culture is as bad. Just look at the television programme Big Brother. Could there be any more compelling argument in favour of privacy, then what happens to a group of people who are (voluntarily) filmed for weeks on end? No-one comes out well. No-one can take it. They all go a bit bonkers. Even the writer and feminist Germaine Greer, who seems to have thought she could beat it, left Celebrity Big Brother early in a rage.
We have surrendered to, as well as been cajoled into, this situation. It is time for us to respect ourselves a little more and demand an unobserved life. It is worth fighting to regain a little bit of privacy. Please, shut the door behind you and mind your own business.
If a Duchess shouldn’t have to put up with the prying, neither should we.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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