Today I bought Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003) and will be sharing content and reflections on it going forward. The following quotes come from pages 27-41; in that section, Malamud Smith builds on Alan Westin’s 1967 definition of privacy as four-faced and composed of solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. I’ve bolded these categories in the sections below.

“When you set out to destroy someone psychologically, destroying his privacy turns out to be one effective and common tactic. When Primo Levi talks about solitude in [Auschwitz] being more precious and rare than bread, he helps us understand its place in life. One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person’s ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable.”

“Summed up briefly, a statement of ‘how not to dehumanize people’ might read: Don’t terrorize or humiliate. Don’t starve, freeze, exhaust. Don’t demean or impose degrading submission. Don’t force separation from loved ones. Don’t make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don’t refuse to listen closely. Don’t destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary.”

Solitude is the most complete state of privacy. A person seeking solitude separates from others so that she cannot be seen or heard, and so that she is not easily intruded upon. In solitude, as opposed to the other states of privacy [anonymity, reserve, and intimacy[, she is most free to relax her body…”

“We seek solitude because our psyches are permeable membranes. When we come in contact with others, we tend to absorb feelings, thoughts, moods, and opinions. A child says you’re unfair for making her start her book report today. Are you? A client asks to change his appointment from Tuesday to Monday. Can you? A spouse gives you a look that suggests it’s your turn to fold the laundry. Is it? A friend describes events that have made her sad. Is that why you now feel sad? We separate from others to sort through all we have taken in, to replay pieces of exchanges, to evaluate them, to rework them—and ultimately for the peace in which to listen attentively until we can hear our own notes amidst the jangle.”

“The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return… Unchosen solitude quickly becomes painful isolation… But solitude in moderation, held in check by its being a sought and limited departure from the company of others, allows freedom.”

“People need privacy from others so that they can rest from the strain of being what others desire—responsive, civil, engaged, conventional…To think and create, people often need solitude because its privacy allows not only mental continuity, quiet, and relief from being noticed, but latitude to experiment with half-formed ideas and ridiculous solutions. Still, that image neglects the full cycle. Solitude is half a heartbeat. Artists seek solitude so that they can create what they then must take before the public. Without an eventual audience, no matter how small, solitude can become, in Emerson’s words, ‘the safeguard of mediocrity.'”

“A second state of privacy is anonymity. To be anonymous is to be unidentified, unnamed, unnoticed:  a walker in a city, a member of a crowd. With the absence of recognition can come a liberating privacy. People often seek anonymity when the conventions of their surroundings, when the burden of being known, threatens to obliterate vital dimensions of their being… Anonymity allows people to express thoughts or feelings they might suppress in a relationship where they feel ashamed, vulnerable, or frightened… When not worried about being identified, people will say what they are otherwise ashamed to say…”

Reserve, the third state of privacy is forbearance, tact, restraint. In a state of reserve, unlike solitude, we are together with people, and unlike anonymity, we are usually known to them. We may be intimate. Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it.”

[Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s sleeping space or using headphones, newspapers, or books to block out other passengers on public transportation. Forms vary culturally and over time.]

“Too much reserve leaves people isolated, misunderstood, and guessing. Do you like me or hate me? Are you angry or sad? Am I helping or hurting? People get edgy when they cannot figure out where they stand. Yet almost all exchanges require some holding back of what is thought or felt because our most private thoughts are too idiosyncratic, vacillating, boring, unsocialized, and bald to be more than occasionally tolerable to other people. The capacity for reserve is as important to sustaining intimacy as disclosure is. It offers a basic form of emotional safety.”

Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings—positive or negative—that are unacceptable in public… the heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person. One attempts to express frankly to another one’s inner experiences, desires, feelings, and perceptions—though the expression is inevitably limited and incomplete.”

Like a recent article on the empirical psychological impacts of political surveillance, this 4-fold analysis of privacy focuses on the individual and his or her voluntary or involuntary engagement with others. I look forward to seeing Malamud Smith explain whether or how she sees privacy and private relationships influencing collective knowledge-making or the work of the state.


Reflect and respond

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