Literally speaking, privacy is ‘idiotic.’ Which is not to say that it is stupid or makes little sense. Rather, privacy makes ‘idiots’ of us all.
Etymology suggests as much, Hannah Arendt argues. For the ancient Greeks, a “life spent in the privacy of one’s own (idion) outside the world of the common is ‘idiotic’ by definition.” A life immersed in ‘one’s own’ is a life cut off, isolated, alienated, and alienating. The Greeks understood that “privacy has a privative trait”; it meant to be “deprived of something,” namely, what it is to be properly human.[i]
Who can disagree with this assessment, following a pandemic that left us homebound for months, condemned to a private, lonely existence, peering onto empty streets and abandoned public spaces? For those who were spared the disease, the loss of bustling life with its easy comradery and chance encounters was the most distressing aspect of this experience. Isolation has given us newfound appreciation for the value of human company and physicality, the sight and smell of strangers tightly packed into a bar or restaurant.
Alone and on our own, we are incomplete. That was what the ancient Greeks meant to say. We remain unfulfilled, unformed, and unrealized in a private existence. In the public realm, we become truly, uniquely human, because that is where we learn what it means to be free, active and impactful individuals, who exercise the power in and of a community.
The Covid-19 pandemic will probably force us to contend with the meaning and value of privacy, which has come to be adulated—at least nominally—in the modern world. Enlightenment philosophers and democratic theorists have imparted a consensus view that privacy is essential to moral and political autonomy. We cannot have wilful, daring, creative and independent-minded citizens without privacy.
And yet, privacy advocates complain, we are maddeningly nonchalant about this supposedly sacred institution. We sacrifice it as a matter of course in the digital economy. The pandemic, of course, has made us even more dependent on online sellers and services, with their demand that we expose private data. As we emerge from the crisis and step gingerly into the economy to come, privacy faces a poor prognosis indeed. But, perhaps, privacy is not so important as some think, as some would have us believe; perhaps, privacy is not so essential to human freedom and democracy after all.
As the word ‘republic’ suggests, the public realm is the heart of politics, not individual privacy. When people learn what it means to be public creatures, when they learn how to negotiate and deliberate, which is often boisterous, contentious and unpleasant, they act the part of citizens. Privacy is not similarly instructive.
Citizens are principally formed and empowered in associations, which inhabit the public realm, John Dewey argues. Such associations include the school, social clubs, political advocacy groups, even churches, all of which teach us democratic values and habits. Which is not to say that these associations are democratic through and through; often they are not. Rather, they nurture democracy in that they offer education and direction on pressing social and political issues. They instruct how to mobilize, encouraging and empowering individual citizens. Associations teach us how to coexist with sometimes very different people. They help us define ourselves, address and compete with opponents, and challenge authority. Entrenched powers are more likely to heed and fear coordinated citizen action, not the demands of isolated private individuals.
Privacy advocates depict the private realm as that place where defiant individualism takes root. Glenn Greenwald says: “only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves. For that reason, it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate…”[ii]
But in history, unorthodox, cutting edge ideas rarely enjoy the luxury of privacy. Rather, they are conceived, articulated and sustained under constant pressure—or oppression. Concerted public organizing, by vibrant and powerful associations, keeps them alive and ensures that controversial ideas, like civil rights expansions, come to fruition. It is more accurate to think of privacy as the fruit of civic action and protest, not its precondition.
Citizens must be made, they must be forged through interaction and communication, habits of negotiation, and the practice of struggle. Bold, impactful citizens are not magically produced in the private realm, as Greenwald suggests. In fact, we are faced with ample evidence to the contrary: in private, citizenship degrades.
Look no further than online discourse. Since its start, the internet has been championed as a new and improved public space, where diverse peoples from all over the world can meet, learn from one another, and empathize. That dream has not materialized. Instead, online discourse has proven to be remarkably rude, crude, and divisive. Many complain that it has infected our broader political environment, worsening destructive partisanship. Our president, for example, instinctively issues invectives on Twitter, and then doubles down in press conferences and public assemblies, firing up his base. Online, we tend to seek out allies and avoid difference. Social media platforms know this; in order to keep our business, their algorithms ensure we rarely see oppositional, confrontational worldviews. In echo chambers, we become more entrenched in our opinions, less likely to empathize with the opposition, or build bridges. Indeed, it is too easy to drop verbal bombs online and walk away, retreat to the shadows, or close the computer.
This indicates that the digital realm is no real public space at all. It is a poor substitute, closer to an expanded private space. That’s certainly how we treat it: we enter when and where we want; we can avoid confrontation and challenges to our worldview; we may attack people on our own terms and ignore or avoid the consequences. We are invited to indulge in private dreams by marketers who anticipate and make proliferate myriad desires.
Under these conditions, free speech is impotent. Dewey knew speech had to be connected to or rooted in associations. Then, it would exact influence and power. And change. A cacophony of atomistic individuals issuing ideas and opinions offers no real challenge to authority. Indeed, it may prove to be a useful distraction.
Consider the case of China: though famous for its ‘Great Firewall’ suppressing disruptive speech and ideas online, researchers have been surprised to discover the regime is engaged in less censorship than previously thought. Or, rather, it is instructive to see what the Chinese government is most intent on censoring. Chinese censors are quite permissive of “criticisms of the state of the Communist party,” which makes some sense, media scholar Zeynep Tufekci points out: by allowing and then keeping tabs on critical comments, the government gauges public opinion. Absent free elections, this is an effective way for an autocracy to stay ahead of brewing problems. What the regime is most vigilant to block or weed out, however, are online posts that have “any potential to encourage collective action” for or against the government, mind you. Why? As one commentator explained, “Once people learn to mobilize, even if they do so to support [the government], who knows what else they will try next?”[iii] Indeed.
The Chinese government is content to allow and cultivate the atomization that occurs online, where citizens remain isolated and independent in their digital pods. God forbid they form potent associations, which impart civic talents and embolden them to challenge the government in powerful ways.
We are not so different on these shores. Commentators have long lamented the loss of social clubs that once fostered easy organization, political or otherwise. Unions, which exerted impressive power and trained generations of citizens in the democratic arts, are greatly diminished. Even before Covid-19, American society was severely atomized—‘idiotic.’ In the industrial world, we are notorious workaholics, and increasingly spend more time on the job, devoted to our private interests and agenda. Then, we endure gruelling commutes, alone in the car, and rush our kids around to sports practice and music lessons, too exhausted afterwards for civic associations.
Amidst the frenzy, we partake in digital citizenship, which is a poor substitute, indeed. It may feel good to issue indignation online and become ‘woke.’ It feels like an accomplishment to speak our minds, circulate commentary among friends and allies, garner support and ‘likes,’ and perhaps stoke their self-righteous anger, too.
Potent citizens, however, expand their base of power. They learn how to talk to the other side; they learn how to respect opponents. They build bridges and reach out, recognizing the nuanced humanity in others—provided they are able to see it—and focus on what we have in common, as opposed to what sets us apart.
[i] Hannah Arendt, “The Public and the Private Realm,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 191.
[ii] Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Picador, 2014), 174,
[iii] Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017), 235.