American culture thrives on contradictions. It exalts individualism yet is rife with the conformity so essential to consumerism. It preaches self-reliance and personal accountability (especially for poor people) while enriching pop psychologists who provide excuses for sins of the middle class. It nurtures feminism and encourages face-lifts.
So we shouldn't be entirely surprised by the paradoxical convergence of reality TV shows with a growing concern about privacy, although the intensity of these opposing trends is particularly dramatic. Democratic and Republican pollsters attest to a "groundswell" of concern about privacy, which politicians rush to address. George W. Bush declares himself a "privacy rights person." Al Gore speechifies about privacy on the Internet. Congress considers hundreds of privacy protection bills.
Still, people cede their privacy voluntarily every day for the promise of security. They willingly turn over photo IDs to airline clerks, in the vain hope of preventing terrorism (as if terrorists haven't figured out how to fake IDs). They give government the power to wiretap. They support a war on drugs that has eviscerated the Fourth Amendment and the privacy rights it was intended to protect. They welcome surveillance cameras in elevators, in parking garages, or at ATMs. They feel entitled to spy on others: New computer programs allow people to monitor their spouses' e-mail or online reading habits. Cameras in day care centers allow parents to keep children and day care workers under constant watch. Armed with video cameras, people tape their children incessantly; the middle class is apt to raise a generation of performers.
While media stories on privacy abound, media encroachments on privacy astound. Over 20 million people tune in to watch Survivor, and now there's also Big Brother, a show that confines 10 strangers to a house for 100 days and subjects them to constant and ubiquitous surveillance. Reporters poll experts to find out what this phenomenon says about our psyche. If you don't watch reality TV, you can always read about it--while you worry about your anonymity if you're reading online. The press loves the story of reality TV but covers the privacy debate as well, mirroring our cognitive dissonance.
We're attracted to and revolted by surveillance. It's puzzling, to be sure, but nothing new. Talk shows have long provided forums for the exhibitionists among us and entertainment for the voyeurs. Popular therapies have demonized silence and stoicism, promoting the belief that healthy people talk about themselves--sometimes incessantly and often in public. Secrets are "toxic." Discretion about your private life is likely to be equated with repression. In the age of the memoir, privacy is pathologized. Still, people who voluntarily surrender their privacy may not want it wrested from them, and American culture harbors a resilient strain of respect for the tough individualist who keeps his troubles to himself. Over a century ago, when Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren published a famous law review article conceptualizing a legal right to privacy, they were appealing to a traditional American value: "the right to be let alone."
With the digital revolution making privacy seem as obsolete as a rotary phone, it's worth remembering that this landmark nineteenth-century treatise on privacy was inspired by new technology, mainly photography, which gave birth to the paparazzi. Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the "unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons" in the press and with the rise of gossip. No longer an idle pastime, gossip was becoming "a trade," they warned, presciently describing the dangers it posed to civil society: Gossip appeals to our baser instincts, the "weak side of human nature" that takes pleasure in the "misfortunes and frailties" of others. It is dignified by print and "crowds space available" for discussion of public issues. "It usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things."
Brandeis and Warren were intent on creating a remedy for involuntary, "unwarranted" invasions of privacy. (They realized that privacy rights should not always protect public figures engaged in matters of public interest, recognizing as well the difficulties of distinguishing between public and private concerns.) They saw privacy as essential to human dignity and lived at a time when exhibitionism was not respectable, much less a sign of mental health. It would have been hard for them to imagine that dignity would one day seem a small price to pay for a moment of fame. "The general object in view is to protect the privacy of private life," Brandeis and Warren wrote. What happens when private life virtually ceases, when, like trees falling in the forest, people want someone watching to make sure they exist?
Some applaud the "openness" (or shamelessness) of the new exhibitionism, in the belief that it will bring us all together. But community, as well as individualism, is at risk. The more public space expands, the more it threatens public life. Would you enter willingly into relationships with people from whom nothing could be hidden? Secrecy is essential to social relations. ¤