Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History
The more time that citizens spend thinking about public matters, Rousseau said, and the less about their own private affairs, the better a society is. One good test of political sentiments is whether you find this thought invigorating or repellent. Either reaction to it, however, implies that you have an understanding of the contrast, some conception of the private.
Barrington Moore’s book raises the very interesting question of what that conception may be. His approach is to consider the quite different ideas of privacy and different attitudes toward it that are to be found in various cultures, thus bringing out the complexities of our own ideas of privacy. There are the privacies of intimacy, such as sexual privacy, which seem, except in ritual and other special practices, to be observed in a very wide range of cultures. (“The preference for seclusion appears to be overwhelming,” as Moore puts it.) Much less widely observed is privacy for defecating and urinating, and among those functions male urination tends to make the lightest demands on privacy, something that used to be illustrated in the streets of Paris by a sparsely enclosed urinal, the vespasienne. (That revealing device has now been replaced by a strange, enclosed structure that is divided equally between the sexes and conceals its purpose so discreetly as to seem thoroughly suspicious.)
For an activity to be private in these ways, it needs only to be hidden; the concealment, as in the vespasienne, can be quite local: other people may readily know what someone, in private, is doing. Other kinds of privacy involve secrecy, as with the undisclosed transactions that take place in a family or among friends. Often, of course, as with other secrets, they are not so much undisclosed as unacknowledged, and what is indecent or embarrassing is to show that one knows. In Eskimo life, about which Moore gives some information, the cramped conditions of the igloo make heavy demands on this kind of convention.
In still other cases, experience is private because it is free from demands or obligations imposed by others. One is free to read, or to go to the movies, or to travel where one wants. This need not have anything specially to do with hiddenness or secrecy; it is merely accepted that at certain times one may do what one wants rather than what one is required to do. Moore particularly stresses this idea, and it is perhaps his central conception of privacy. But it immediately raises several questions. When the private is contrasted with public life or public concerns, as it is by Rousseau’s remark, the world of the private does not have to be understood as one in which there are no obligations—rather, it is one in which there are no public obligations. Within my private life, I may be under an obligation to visit my mother; but if I am obliged, for example, to take part in political meetings, work on civic projects, participate in public ceremonies, or serve…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.