Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Privates, Your Privates, All God's Children Got Privates

There’s an interesting discussion of invisibility, both literal and figurative, going on at Kelley Eskridge’s blog. (I’ve already weighed in with a comment.)

Here’s something, though. Several of the participants, including Kelley herself, mentioned government surveillance (with invisibility as a way to evade it):

And I do understand that my privacy is already violated in a zillion different ways by my own government. I don’t discount that at all. I think it’s wrong. And I also do not take it personally in the same way I would if my neighbor got invisible and snuck into my office and watched me while I was working.

What suddenly struck me about these sentiments is how American they are. They may even be a product of the very surveillance she’s talking about.

In a “traditional” society people have little privacy. Everybody knows your business, and it’s hard to get away from the watchful eyes, the listening ears. “Private” space, especially indoors, is not easy to find when there are no doors that lock, when servants and slaves are constantly listening to be called. People at the top of the food chain, royalty and nobility, possibly had less “privacy” than commoners, since they were dressed by servants, excreted before waiting servants in pots brought and carried away by servants, slept with servants nearby. Even sleeping alone in a bed was unusual; I was struck when I read The Odyssey for the first time a decade ago, that when prince Telemachus visits another court, he’s given a prince as a bedfellow. Who’d want to sleep alone? It’s lonely, and cold.

When I was in junior high school forty years ago, boys were expected to undress and shower in front of each other before gym class. If you were shy about it, you must be a fairy, since bodily modesty was considered a feminine trait. Around 1990 I began hearing from young college males that they had never been naked in front of their classmates – not even athletes. Some young swimmers were as shocked to learn that I’d routinely showered naked with other boys in school, as I was to learn that they never had: they showered in their suits. (Paradoxically enough, male modesty in the gym was increasing at the same time as the “pornification” of American society, with more eroticized public nudity in media among men and women alike.) According to a local newspaper article, boys’ locker rooms in newer schools are routinely built with individual shower cubicles. Around a decade later, I was hanging out with some Korean friends and an American friend of theirs in his early 20s, who I discovered had gone to my high school. Somehow the subject of communal showers came up, and my Korean friends were as startled as I was to hear this boy indignantly hiss that of course he wouldn’t take a shower in front of other students – it would be a violation of privacy! Although most Koreans now have private bathrooms at home, public baths are still popular in Korea with people of both sexes and all ages, and if this guy ever goes there he’ll have some adjusting to do.

One reason I’m not so concerned by what the government knows about me in this age of high-tech surveillance is that it doesn’t – in principle – feel all that new. My birth is on record, with the certificate filed in the county courthouse back home. My school records are government files, and so on. The census (which many people denounce as illicit government spying) is mandated in the Constitution. Government spying itself is not exactly a new development, including illegal spying. That doesn’t mean I can’t be brought up short if someone overheard a conversation without my knowledge. I wouldn’t feel all that safe even without illegal (or legal) wiretaps, though, because I also know that people will misreport what I’ve said in any case. Years ago, when another gay man complained that “everyone” knew who he’d slept with last night, I told him, “Remember, you have no secrets in this town -- especially the ones that aren’t true!” I suppose one advantage of the gay male tradition of anonymous sex is that it gave us some secrecy (though probably not as much as we thought): if he doesn’t know your name, he can’t tell everybody about your secret shameful fetishes!

I think that Americans’ assumptions about privacy are related to our myth of heroic individualism, symbolized as escaping into the wilderness from concentrations of people. But that, I suspect, is The Myth of the Frontier, of solitary self-reliant pioneers who wanted lots of space between themselves and their nearest neighbor. Did frontierspeople have much privacy? Did young Abe Lincoln have privacy in his log cabin? Probably not. This used to be an advantage of cities, and it was one of the reasons people ran away to them, to get away from ingrown communities where everyone knew everybody else, and there was always someone breathing down your neck.* As Laura María Agustín put it (in Sex at the Margins, Zed Books 2007, p. 45), “In the sentimentalizing that occurs around ‘uprooting,’ the myriad possibilities for being miserable at home are forgotten. Many people are fleeing from small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets and suffocating families.” One of the battiest notions of the ‘communitarian’ left, as exemplified by Christopher Lasch, was that The Family is a “haven in a heartless world.”

It doesn’t bother me that the government knows where I live, or that the supermarket knows when I last bought toilet paper. The ‘violation’ of my privacy (though I don’t consider these things private, any more than the fact of my homosexuality) in earlier times or other cultures would have taken different forms, but it would still have been a reliable feature of my life. It’s not that I feel safe under this government, or any other. What worries me more is misreporting, misinformation. People who’ve gotten their FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act tend to report that what they find most surprising is how inaccurate much of that government “intelligence” was. Things have not really improved since 9/11, as far as I can tell. Too many of the people who have been disappeared, in the US itself and in our foreign domains, were chosen on the basis of equally unfounded reports. As another commenter at Kelley Eskridge’s blog put it, “The thing is, I once read the Paranoid’s Manual, and the first rule said that, ‘No matter how paranoid you are, you can never be paranoid enough.’” But that applies just as much to the low-tech Inquisition. It’s not what other people know about me that makes me nervous, it’s what they think they know, and what they’ll feel entitled to do about it.

* Even in the cities, private space is and was hard to come by. How much privacy did a lodger have who slept on the couch? How much privacy did you have in the tenements, with a family crammed into one room?