One of the more common items of rhetoric heard these days about the ongoing privacy debate is the argument that those who have nothing to hide need not worry about their privacy. Such a claim introduces an impasse for those who feel uncomfortable, if not violated by recent claims of government snooping, but there is a reason we feel that way. And when many of the other sociopolitical issues that dog me in everyday life seem not to desist with time, I turn to fiction for answers.
Of all the arguments proposed over the last week in response to the PRISM scandal in the United States, I have yet to hear somebody introduce this remarkably simple but elegant maxim:
We have a right to be complicated. We have a right to be an enigma.
Western Literature has metamorphosed significantly over several millenia, and while it is highly precocious to make any sweeping claims about a singular purpose for its changes, one thing I do believe is that the transition from tragedy and romance to the novel as the primary literary medium has significant implications. While the center-stage victims of Sophocles’ works and the idyllic heroes of chivalric lore lived and died by ideals representing by ideals higher than themselves, the rising tide of humanism and the growth of urban centers suddenly changed the focal point of personal exploration. No longer could ideals—best represented by such heroes—do justice to the multitudes bred into the individual.
Don Quixote has remained such an important work of literature because it blatantly marked the change from the idealized figure to the individual. Bound by nothing—not by divinity, nation (his stomping grounds ‘La Mancha’ was a fairly isolated portion of Spain at the time) or family (he had none), Quixote became one of the first fictional heroes unbound by anything at all. The mythology he creates is his very own, and we know it’s fake. But for those diligent enough to have read both parts start to finish, you should know that he’s partially in on it, too. Quixote needed to create the ideals he would embody because he knew the ideals were false.
The novel was born and the “average” individual became the primary slate for the study of people and their choices. So what does this all have to do with privacy? How can we use a 17th century novel about a man pretending to be an errant knight as an objection against mass digital surveillance?
The reason we feel a collective discomfort for such spying is the same reason that the novel is a such a universal medium. The novel is so cherished because it provides a (relatively) safe way for people to explore the quotidian workings of everyday life, but unlike what the collection of cultural signifiers you call your Facebook profile suggests, great novels will mine the depths of human thought to introduce its assumptions about the nature of a people, a country, a belief, or other intangible institutions.
The eye of the reader—with its curious and eager lens—may explore the mechanisms of daily human existence however it pleases. But this is not a breach of privacy. As the novelist shares their fears and desires through a collection of untrue but plausible actions, there is a secret exchange occurring; the writer will propose universal truths through the unfolding of a plausible action, while the reader—far away, we must assume, from the first evidence of such revelatory expressions—will secretly confirm or deny the prospect that these acts can stand in for the unknowable leviathan of infinite events we know as society.
Our Facebook pages have evolved into our own version of society, where we may entertain ourselves by peeking over the edge and looking into the lives of others, hundreds of others in fact, who each provide a certain script about the individual in question. We may socialize in such a sphere, exchange the odd secret with friends, perhaps reveal something about ourselves to the ones that will read it. Just like a good novel, there is a prescient tension between our surface narrative and what lies beneath. But few of us ever transcend the latter realm for fear that someone may enter ours.
But suddenly, we are being watched. And this reader is not there to appreciate us. I love reading about intrigues and the secret lives of the ordinary as much as the next person, but as a government database tracks our every word, the barrier that we deliberately place between the rest of the world and ourselves is suddenly broken. The novel has effectively offered us the prospect that there is an impenetrable narrative to everybody’s life one that is far more interesting than we can ever imagine.
Gustave Flaubert recognized this and set his masterpiece Madame Bovary in a town worth little regard during a time of little significance, but one forever immortalized by Emma Bovary’s incessant push towards passionate courtship. Such storytelling is not only a necessity to the literary form, but as the structure of social networking suggests, it is a trope inherently embedded into our social consciousness.
So when the million-dollar question about privacy comes up once again, think about what you have to hide, or perhaps what you keep to yourself. It may not be horrifying nor tantalizing, but it is a necessary ingredient to the social fabric. Within your own trove of stories and secrets is the inalienable right to be multitudinous, to be imperfect, to be varied.
Literature urges us to transcend the decimal and become more complicated. And doing so, one can only hope, will strengthen that now-forgotten bond between culture and deeper understanding.