Monday, August 13, 2012


A few weeks back, two of our friends, A. and E., were fighting about what whether it's okay to forward an email which your friend sent only to you, to another mutual friend or friends. A., who is a young Christian, denigrated the whole concept of privacy, saying it is necessary only because of human selfishness and pride. In an unfallen world there would be no need for privacy, he claimed. I disagree, vehemently. The following are some thoughts on the importance of privacy.

I believe privacy is deeply connected to personhood, not just sinfulness. Even in a world where everyone was perfectly loving and humble, I think the need for privacy would still exist.

*Note: Perhaps in Heaven that won't be the case, because Jesus promised that we will be one there as He and the Father are one--perhaps this includes sharing all our thoughts? Likewise, in a world with telepathy or perfect communication, privacy would function differently.

This is because privacy has to do with appropriateness and the specificity of relationships. Respecting a person's privacy is honoring the specificity of their relationship with you. Each relationship is different, because every person is unique. Persons, even persons who all study computer science, or even persons who all follow the same God, are never interchangeable. When you say something to one person, that person will interpret it in a particular way, because they have some particular and finite knowledge of you and a particular relationship and history with you. If that person repeats what you said to another person, that third person is not going to hear and understand it in exactly the same way as the original, intended audience.

For example, if I say something to O., he will understand it in a much deeper and more nuanced way than if I say that same thing to O.'s best friend S., because O. knows me more intimately and also knows more about me and simply has had more experiences with me. Thus if O. does repeat what I said to S., he has a responsibility to both me and S. to provide whatever context and/or interpretation he can to make it more likely that S. will interpret my words as I intended them.

Of course, in a lot of cases, no matter how much context/interpretation O. provides, there is no way for him to repeat my words to S. in an appropriate way. Some things just can't transfer, because some context is relational and historical rather than informational. That is, the fact that I'm O.'s wife is a major, major part of the context of whatever I say to him, and that context is simply not transferable because our relationship is unique.

Now, I know marriage is an extreme example of a relationship being specific and its contents being impossible to repeat appropriately outside of the marital context. But every relationship is specific and particular. The particularity of relationships is rooted not in our fallenness but in our personhood. A., E. has a particular relationship with you, and E., A. has a particular relationship with you. That particularity in and of itself, without recourse to matters of pride, unlove, hiding, etc., necessitates a consideration for the particularity of any given exchange between the two of you.

To summarize and apply: Simply because E. is a unique individual and he said some things to you, A., as your own unique individual in the context of your particular unique shared relationship--simply because you are both persons and every time you speak to each other you do so as persons--it doesn't work to repeat what he said to you to other people who weren't invited into the original exchange. If you do so without asking his consent, you are treating him as a non-person.

Whatever bad purposes privacy may be used for, privacy in itself is an essential way of respecting personhood. That's why it's important.

P.S. It's also worth noting that when you argue that privacy is only important to people who wish to hide something, you make it impossible for anyone to request privacy without appearing to be guilty. It's a conversation-stopper. If your goal is to foster open communication and create a space where no one feels the need to hide their true self, then making the argument that the desire for privacy comes from sin is counterproductive. On the other hand, if your goals is to shut down communication and "win" the argument, this might be a highly successful tactic to take... Heh.

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