Once upon a time, we all lived in small towns. Perhaps not you personally, but your parents did, or your grandparents, or great-grandparents. Go back far enough, and all towns were small towns.
In these towns, we worked with our neighbors. Our kids went to school with our neighbors’ kids. When it was time to relax, we spent time with our neighbors. As a result, we got to know our neighbors pretty well.
But modern life has arrived (certainly for all of us who are using a computer to write and read blogs). For many of us, we don’t live in the town where we were born and members of our family are scattered across the country. By the time our kids graduate from high school, they’ll be lucky to call more than one or two people “lifelong” friends. Some of us work in corporations so vast, we easily could meet a fellow employee on the street and never know it.
Small town life has its drawbacks, of course. The one most frequently cited is that everyone knows what everyone else is up to. There is little opportunity for anonymity. What you do, how you behave, where you’ve been, eventually gets around town.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Sure, we all demand a certain measure of privacy. But having everyone know everyone else’s business has the positive effect of keeping people in line. The theory of social control suggests that potential law-breakers will second guess their choices based on the nature of their relationship to others and the stake they have in the community. Local politics often is more civil because the candidates personally know all the voters, and are sure to run into them at the supermarket on occasion. And having a sense of shame is necessary “to live well together,” says an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.
Oddly, privacy is not a right specifically mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. However, our Supreme Court has found a right of privacy, from among the various explicit rights in the Constitution, that can be described as an “interest in the nondisclosure of private information and also [an] interest in making important decisions independently” of outside interference (Whalen v. Roe, 1977). Sometimes, this has been referred to as the “right to be let alone.” Private information, of course, would be facts of a confidential nature that would not be available to the average public observer.
The key, though, is reciprocity. If I have to respect your privacy, you have to respect mine. Or to put it another way, if you’re going to know what I’m doing, then I need to know what you’re up to. Without that, it becomes snooping, and the National Security Agency has given us an example of where that leads.
Perhaps if we were still used to having the nosy neighbors, the NSA snooping wouldn’t rankle so much, or be necessary at all.
But we aren’t. Cities have grown in size and technology has advanced, both allowing people to act in virtual anonymity in greater numbers than ever before. In 1990, there were 10 cities with 10 million people or more; today, there are 23. People move to cities to “reinvent” themselves, away from the disapproving eyes of their hometown neighbors. As for technology, the internet allows us to act without ever looking another person in the eye, desensitizing folks to the effects of malice and invective, and creating disinhibition.
All of this brings us to where we are today.
We know we lack the connection to other people that we feel we ought to have. And we seek it using social media such as Facebook, a for-profit company that many people feel uses our private information to make money. Let me put it another way: we’ve expanded the bounds of privacy to such an extent that now we’ve bleached our lives of true connection and then willingly (or unwittingly) give up our privacy to corporations in the hope that we can feel connected again.
I can sell you human connection at a fair price, Facebook is telling us.
But wait, there’s more. One right that has been enshrined in our Constitution is the right to own a gun, something that I increasingly believe to have been an error in judgement by our Founding Fathers. In the abstract, this right is not necessarily a bad thing since an armed citizenry does mitigate against the abuse of power. Here’s the catch, though: once upon a time, everyone who owned a gun lived in a small town. The gun was used under the supervision of either your older relatives or your neighbors. What you shot, how you shot it, where you’ve been shooting eventually gets around town.
For many people in the U.S., this is no longer true. Lives are lived in anonymity. Guns are purchased in anonymity. Hateful thoughts and comments are developed on social media, often in anonymity. Mass shootings occur when the shooter thinks that he’s living a life of anonymity. Our Founding Fathers never could have envisioned such an empty life. If so, they’d have reconsidered their position on the right to bear arms.
To be responsible is to respond. Respond to whom? Your neighbor.
And who is your neighbor? As Jesus once so eloquently pointed out, everyone is.
[Updated June 2, 2014.]