Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Opposites explain: transparency, privacy and secrecy

I want to return to Esther Perel one more time. I discussed her previously here.

No virtue can be understood in isolation. By that I mean that you cannot pull a word like "pride", or "bravery" or "loyal" out and expect it to do the job of making us understand what is required to possess the virtues that go with those terms. Virtues can only be understood if we also have words for what it means not to have the virtue in question.

For example, consider pride. Pride is a bad thing if we oppose it to humility. But pride is a good thing if we oppose it to shame. Someone who does not care to protect their reputation is not a virtuous person. It is not humility to run yourself down by falsely claiming to be more evil than you are. It is even a problem to keep repeating your failures over and over again after you have confessed and made amends for them.

Given that, I think Perel's deepest and most important insight is what she has to say about privacy in marriage:
Transparency is the whole culture. The way a regular person tells everything about themselves on television. The way technology allows us to find out anything—99 percent of the people I see, their affairs are discovered through email or phones. But transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness these days. I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.
I'm sure you can see where I am going. Transparency is a virtue if it is the opposite of secrecy. It is less obviously so if it is opposite of privacy. As Perel says, if transparency is not just a virtue but also "our organizing principle of closeness" we are going to have problems because our privacy will be destroyed.

That jars us because it doesn't strike us that husbands and wives should have privacy from one another. We accept and even demand that couples should have a shared privacy from the rest of the world but privacy from one another is another matter. Not much of it anyway. We all close the bathroom door when we go to use the toilet after all. Other things we aren't so sure of.

It's interesting to consider Mad Men in this regard. The first season episode titled "5G" was all about this issue. It treated privacy and secrecy as if they were the same thing and they are only ever used for betrayal or denial.

The key plot is the one where Adam shows up and confronts Don/Dick. Don says,
"Adam, that's not me."
Later, we find out that Don's privacy has a purpose that is not simply deception. Sitting at the coffeeshop, he and Adam have a conversation:
Don: "What happened to her?"
Adam: "Mom?"
Don: "She wasn't my mother. She never let me forget that."
Privacy is important because it goes to self-definition. It allows us to become something we ant to become. That something new might be good and it might be bad. The important thing is, you are allowed to do it. Your family, your friends, your past, they all can limit you. They don't have to but try telling them that. The people around you when you grew up, especially your family, want you to stay inside a certain personality. They don't want to let you be something else.

Your spouse too. It's safer for them if you remain within a certain set of parameters. They have a legitimate and active interest in who you are. You can't just change suddenly and you owe it to them to change in ways that will continue to make you strong as a couple instead of ways that will drive you apart.

It is, as Don would say, delicate. It has to be handled carefully. Those qualifications made, privacy is important and transparency is no virtue if it robs us of privacy.

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