Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Privacy 1

I've got to say that I'm in total agreement with the ruling of the judge in the recent case taken by Max Mosley, the Motor Racing Chief, against the press (in this case the tabloid The News of The World) for invading his privacy.  Whatever consenting adults get up to in private, provided they are doing no physical or mental harm to another, is absolutely no one's business.  To Mr Mosley's credit, he did not deny taking part in the sex session with five prostitutes, but he said his privacy was violated by The News of the World's reporting of it.  I remember our own esteemed historian and now long retired Irish politician the venerable Conor Cruise O' Brien pointing out what being a liberal in any modern democracy means:  "I may not agree with you or with what you do, but I strongly defend your right to have these beliefs."  Again the caveat is, of course, provided no harm is being done to anyone.  Obviously, this is the case with Mr. Mosley.  Max's claim to fame is, of course, that he is son of the famous fascist and Nazi sympathizer Oswald Mosley. The News of The World apparently mentioned that the act engaged in showed "true depravity" involving Nazi-style role playing.  Well, quite obviously the reporters felt that Mr Mosley was fair game because he after all "guilty by association.  What else could one expect from the son of a Nazi!" No true liberal or democrat could stand by such a gross perversion of justice.  He admitted to the court that he liked to indulge his sado-masochistic fetish which involved getting naked ladies to whip him.  Whatever turns Mr Mosley on is indeed his business.  The rest of us should indeed care less as to his sexual proclivities and peccadilloes. As the New Testament reports Jesus as saying: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!"

According to the Irish Times, the judge in the case lost no opportunity to criticise and berate the tabloid press.  No wonder one often hears the epithet "gutter" being used in tandem with tabloid.  This is how the article, originally from Reuters, finishes in The Irish Times and I think it is a worthy conclusion which is worth reflecting on in any civilized society:

In his ruling, Judge Eady said that the law in breach of privacy was concerned to protect such matters as personal dignity, autonomy and integrity - rather than injury to reputation as in libel.

He said: “One should be careful not to dismiss matters going counter to personal dignity because a particular sexual activity or inclination itself may seem undignified.

“After all, sexual activity is rarely dignified.”  See this link: Mosley wins Case

There were two other issues regarding privacy which came to my notice these past few days.  The first is the question of how we define privacy in a counselling context.  This morning I attended an interview for a counselling-psychotherapy course - at the end of which one is fully qualified as a therapist.  As is the norm with such interviews in the therapeutic area there was the usual group sharing during which candidates were called out one by one for interview with two psychotherapists.  Because I and indeed the other candidates were used to such group activities and indeed group therapy we began to share at a deep level.  A lot of private material was exchanged.  Boundaries to privacy in such a therapeutic group are indeed very flexible.  A lot of painful stuff is revealed and listened to.  All of us would know that what we learn in such groups is for our ears only - just like at an AA meeting.

Everyone is entitled to their privacy.  Period.  No one's privacy can be infringed.  It's one of the more sacred values of our so-called civilized society.  In counselling and psychotherapy consequently confidentiality which is essentially the protection of a person's privacy is one of the ultimate values.  No counsellor or psychotherapist will discuss private material about clients in public.  It is also obvious that practically all counsellors or psychotherapists will not be moving in the same social circles as their clients anyway.  Confidentiality is one of the central planks of counselling or psychotherapy. The only cases where confidentiality can be breached are where there is a likelihood of harm to the patient or client or to another.

What is Privacy?

The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share basic common themes.  Even within a particular culture some of us are less private than others.  For instance, I myself tend to be less private than many.  I am honest and open about my medical complaints, e.g., hypertension, high cholesterol and what was once a taboo namely endogenous unipolar depression.  I see no reason to hide these facts from the people with whom I work.  It makes for a healthier workplace anyway.  I am also quite open about my feelings about things.  Perhaps, I express my feelings too much.  Still, I don't think any human being can overdo on the feeling side unless you're what's called a "dumper" who likes to dump all your "shit" onto others.  The poor individual who is dumped upon is called a "skip" in common parlance in counselling circles. Obviously such people are to be avoided like the plague.

Privacy means different things in different cultures and even within subcultures within societies.  For instance the hippie subculture had/has more open attitudes to sex, to numbers of partners and to drugs than would say church-goers in that society.  Privacy for them would not be interpreted in such rigid and delimiting ways as say with a prayer group in the local church.  Likewise attitudes to privacy would differ between naturists who simply like being naked together on certain beaches and say a fundamentalist or evangelical church outing to a public beach. 

Some people value their privacy so much that they just like being anonymous.  They shun any public recognition of their talents even and just do not like to attract attention to themselves in any manner whatsoever.  I know quite a number of such individuals and I would never compromise their privacy because that is an invasion of their rights.  I certainly would not agree with their notion of anonymity but I strongly defend their rights to their beliefs.

Another thing that can be mentioned here is that privacy has a considerable link with the feeling of security and we all like to feel secure.  If we do not feel secure in ourselves well then any exposure of perceived weaknesses can be seen as a frightening attack on one's very self.  I think of a fellow teacher who has changed the number of his mobile a few times because he lives in fear of pupils or past-pupils finding out his number.  Privacy then has much to do with security.  Hence, as a psychologist and would-be therapist I would argue that the more secure we become in ourselves the less "private" we need to be. 

I have mentioned above how privacy and anonymity are also closely linked.  These two concepts can also be closely linked with that most fundamental of human values namely freedom.  As free human beings we can go anywhere we wish - within limits of course.  We can go "down town" or indeed anywhere in the world  and remain anonymous.  One might argue that this is a good illustration of human freedom.  However, the plight of so-called famous people delimits their freedom fundamentally in this respect.   Think for a moment about the unfortunate plight of the late Princess Diana, hounded everywhere by the press and by the paparazzi. How many times that poor creature's privacy was infringed or invaded must be huge indeed.  Her sad death was surely a consequence of a flight to preserve her privacy. Indeed, any individuals in the mass media or any politicians or any people whose jobs require them to be public figures have to pay a high price for their "fame" and that is the very price of their anonymity or privacy.  However, all who choose to have such a high public profile know this price.  Hence, those "lesser" mortals who choose not to go into these areas can enjoy their anonymity - the price they pay is that they will never be famous or "important" in the world's eyes.

Picture I took of a stome wall Doolin County Clare, June 2008. "Good walls make good neighbours." So said the poet Robert Frost. And wasn't he right?

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