Friday, February 22, 2013

Propriety, not Privacy

Ok, this may now no longer be a topical post, but I've been thinking about it since the prank phone call and subsequent suicide of the nurse at Princess Kate's hospital. Some other big things got in the way - not to mention a holiday - so the post got put off. But I still think there's some relevancy to speaking about society and privacy, so here it goes.

Any death is tragic, especially a suicide. It speaks of unfathomable hurt and loss. In this case, it was possibly a result of public embarrassment, which itself was the result of a joke gone wrong. Our immediate reaction is to cast blame. We have to find someone responsible.

I'd like to argue that there's no one to blame - this is the result of a society we created, one with priorities way out of whack in a number of ways.

Privacy is not really of utmost importance. I laugh at CEOs who have bodyguards, mostly to make themselves look important, and at celebrities who bemoan the paparazzi for following them everywhere, despite the examples of many big-name stars who are never seen. Not that anyone should be able to get your medical records without your permission, but it shouldn't be such a big deal if it happens.

I think this obsession with privacy comes from our societal push towards self-control and competition. We want others to know as little about us because it might reveal weakness. Or, perhaps we want to keep things hidden to project a certain image to the rest of the world - how accurately are you represented by your carefully crafted Facebook persona?

Somehow we think if we can control how people see us, we can actually be different. We reject our failures and weaknesses as somehow other than who we are when our sins are almost always worse in our own minds - at least to the people who love us.

It's those other people - those strangers, enemies or frenemies?, I guess. Those people who will leap on our "private" matters to put us down, gain an edge, or try to change how we're viewed (by ourselves and others). Sometimes just the knowledge that I'm self-conscious about something will make it an object of ridicule, even if objectively there's no reason for it to be.

There's a fine line between laughing at some guy who falls down the stairs and dehumanizing him. If you have to say, "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you," you're not, and they know it.

All of this leads us to a place of absolute guarded-ness. We think that everything needs to be secret - the results of my blood test, my salary, how much I paid for that purse, the fights I have with my spouse, etc.

I think perhaps we're better off not worrying so much about privacy as propriety. Obviously, I'm not going to put all the things about my wife that bug me in a newspaper column, or tell random strangers how much cash is in my wallet, but there are certainly times for discussing everything.

I've often said that Christians don't have the luxury of privacy - and I believe it strongly. We are accountable to each other for the way we participate in this shared life in Christ. We're responsible to others for our actions - talk about a counter-cultural idea. We have the right to ask each other just about anything.

Of course this - and every other path to escape the tyranny of privacy - requires relationship. We have to have people we trust not to abuse us, and people who will be similarly vulnerable to us. That's how we begin to find a way out, to actually become the kinds of people we'd like to think we are.

I made a vow to myself when I joined Facebook that I wouldn't censor myself - I wouldn't present a picture of myself that was any different than the me my friends and family know. I think they'd all say I've stuck to it (to my wife's chagrin, at times). But part of that was learning what things I should be saying or thinking at all. Knowing others might see it or be offended by it gave me pause to think.

Some would call that censorship, but I call it growth. I've found that the discipline of refusing privacy in that way has help shape me into the kind of person who considers others all the time. My thinking and speaking have changed. Perhaps not always in socially acceptable ways, but ways I can live with, ways I can defend, for the most part.

I do believe my life's an open book. I think there's an appropriate place to share anything - but the key is not content, but situation. Propriety.

There are still things in my life that embarrass me. There are times where I've been blind and foolish. I'd rather not everyone know about them, but I won't be upset if you ask or if they come out (at least I'll try really hard not to be with varying success), because, like it or not, they're me. I hope they aren't always me, but for now, they are who I am. They're not worth losing sleep over, let alone someone's life.

I don't think this is license to just go rousing into everyone's business and exposing the deep, dark secrets of the world. But we do live in a world where such secrets are exposed and their exposition is a favorite hobby for many. On top of watching our lives and working to become people whose secrets are less deep and less dark, we might also think about surrounding ourselves with people who won't be surprised by our secrets and won't love us any less if they are.

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