What Virtue Privacy?

[Warning: this post is LONG.]

On first glance the homo hypocritus hypothesis, that humans had huge heads to subtly evade social norms while pretending to enforce them, seems supported by our love of privacy.  The argument “Why oppose transparency unless you have something to hide?” suggests we are private to evade norm enforcement. To explore this issue, I pondered Thomas Nagel’s famous ’98 defense of privacy norms (HT Richard Chappell.)

First, consider some of Nagel’s concrete examples:

A and B meet at a cocktail party; A has recently published an unfavorable review of B’s latest book, but neither of them alludes to this fact, and they speak, perhaps a bit stiffly, about real estate. … Consider the alternative: B: You son of a bitch, I bet you didn’t even read my book. …

At the same party C and D meet. D is a candidate for a job in C’s department, and C is transfixed by D’s beautiful breasts. They exchange judicious opinions about a recent publication by someone else. Consider the alternative: … D: Take your eyes off me, you dandruff-covered creep. …

When Maggie in The Golden Bowl lets the Prince know that she knows everything, by letting him see the broken bowl, … they do not explicitly discuss the Prince’s affair. … If it were out there on the table between them, demanding some kind of joint response, the manifestation of their reactions would lead to a direct collision, filled with reproaches and counterreproaches, guilt and defiance, anger, pity, humiliation, and shame, which their intimacy would not survive. …

[Regarding] Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, … the challenge on the basis of his sexual victimization of Anita Hill was quite unjustified, even though I’m sure it was all true. … The only way to avoid damage to someone’s reputation by facts of this kind, in spite of their irrelevance to qualification for public office, is through a powerful convention of nonacknowledgment.

Nagel is perceptive in seeing our related social games:

The point of polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression is to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play. It is material that everyone who has been around knows is there — feelings of hostility, contempt, derision, envy, vanity, boredom, fear, sexual desire or aversion, plus a great deal of simple self-absorption. …

One expresses one’s desires … only to the extent that they are compatible with the publicly acknowledged desires of others, or at least in such a way that any conflict can be easily resolved by a commonly accepted procedure of decision. One avoids calling attention to one’s own obsessions or needs in a way that forces others either to attend to them or too conspicuously to ignore them, and one avoids showing that one has noticed the failings of others, in order to allow them to carry on without having to respond to one’s reactions of amusement or alarm. … Everyone knows that there is much more going on than what enters the public domain, but the smooth functioning of that domain depends on a general nonacknowledgment of what everyone knows. …

In some cases, perhaps, good manners do their work by making it possible for us to believe that things are not as they are, and that others hold us in the regard which they formally display. … If someone else engages in flattery that is actually meant to be believed, it is offensive because it implies that they believe you require this kind of deception as a balm to your vanity. …

In our present subculture … there is considerable latitude for the airing of disagreements and controversy of a general kind. … It is impolite to draw attention to one’s achievements or to express personal insecurity, envy, or the fear of death, or strong feelings about those present, except in a context of intimacy.

But Nagel’s explanation for all this behavior seems to me rather idealistic:

Nonacknowledgment can sometimes also serve the purpose of deceiving those, like children or outsiders, who do not know the conventions. But its main purpose is … to manage the distinction between … what invites attention and a collective response and what remains individual and may be ignored. …

Conventions of restraint … avoid provoking unnecessary conflict. Some forms of reticence have a social function, protecting us from one another and from undesirable collisions and hostile reactions. Other forms of reticence have a personal function, protecting the inner life from a public exposure that would cause it to wither, or would require too much distortion. … Selective intimacy permits some interpersonal relations to be open to forms of exposure that are needed for the development of a complete life. …

The conventions of reticence result from a kind of implicit social contract … that serves to some degree (though unequally) the interests of all — as social conventions tend to do. … The essential function of the boundary between what is acknowledged and what is not is to admit or decline to admit potentially significant material into the category of what must be taken into consideration and responded to collectively. … If something is not acknowledged, then even if it is universally known, it can be left out of consideration in the collective social process, though it may play an important role separately in the private deliberations of the individual participants. …

The trouble with the alternatives is that they lead to a dead end, because they demand engagement on terrain where common ground is unavailable without great effort, and only conflict will result. … Humans … suffer … inhibition and embarrassment brought on by the thought that others are watching them. … there are aspects of life which require that we be free of it, in order that we may live and react entirely from the inside. They include sexual life in its most unconstrained form and the more extreme aspects of emotional life — fundamental anxieties about oneself, fear of death, personal rage, remorse, and grief.

Nagel says privacy norms function to avoid “conflict”, but it seems to me that the conflicts that privacy avoids come mainly from other social norms! For example, if norms require a cheating victim to end their marriage, a cheating victim who does not want to end her marriage, but who does want to inform her spouse she knows about the cheating, must be careful to send this message in a way observers can’t see. Hence the clever trick with the broken bowl.

In Nagel’s other examples, people also conspire to avoid various acts in order to avoid the strong reactions that common norms would require to such acts. Social norms require people to react strongly to publicly visible acts of strong accusation, sexual leering, exposed adultery, or sexual harrassment. Social norms are also the source of our strong reactions to exposed sex, a problem Nagel says the privacy of intimacy helps to solve.

This all raises the question: If social norms serve the interests of all, then why do we have social norms pushing people to induce the conflicts that privacy norms may then help avoid?

Here’s my tenative answer.

Before humans, primates had complex social strategies that required huge brains to manage. But other primates had little in the way of social norms they were expected to enforce.  In contrast, humans language helped enable social norms, which could promote social efficiency and reduce inefficient conflict. People were expected to punish norm violators, as well as all who didn’t punish violators.

If such norms had been consistently and fairly enforced, humans wouldn’t have needed huge primate brains. But humans quickly learned how to coordinate behind the scenes to selectively evade social norms, and such subtle strategies required the biggest brains of all.

One way to avoid having a social norm to apply to oneself is to prevent wide knowledge that the norm applies to your situation. It is all right if some folks know, as long as outsider observers don’t know. People don’t want to anyone to be able to prove they knowingly failed to enforce a norm.

So one might try to subtly encourage associates to not reveal damning information, and perhaps also punish those who do so. This would lead to a general habit of people being reluctant to “tell on” friends, which would then lead to a reluctance to “tell on” anyone with many strong allies. Which is basically a roughly pro-privacy equilibrium.

This sort of equilibrium allows selective enforcement, via selectively “telling on” folks. Folks might try to quietly “tell on” a rival to get the word out without that rival’s allies learning who exactly did the telling. Once enough people knew, the norm would have to be enforced, no matter how it was that folks came to know. Which would then lead to a general watching out for, and disapproval of, “gossip”, i.e., secretive telling on other people.

When folks expect to be able to evade a norm, they don’t mind making that norm stronger. This lets them sound more pro-social, while actually giving themselves an advantage over folks who can’t evade as easily. And once norms get overly strong, there is more intuitive support for allowing evasion, via attitudes supporting letting people keep their “privacy.”

So both sides can be right. The core function of privacy may be hypocrisy – avoiding the application of norms one endorses to oneself, and yet privacy norms may tend to be helpful in preventing enforcement of excessively strong norms. And the ambiguity of most privacy norms may enable the selective enforcement on which homo hypocritus thrives.

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