Privacy and the Ethics of Literature

By Kay, Guy Gavriel | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Privacy and the Ethics of Literature

Kay, Guy Gavriel, Queen's Quarterly

Daniel Defoe, pioneer of the English language novel, loved to create fascinating characters and to experience their worlds first-hand - leaving his titillated readers wondering whether the "memoirs" published under various pseudonyms were fantasy or real life. But since Defoe's time, writers of literature have blurred the boundary between fact and fiction much farther. And this has gone beyond simply using real historical figures as set dressing for a work of fiction. Many of our best fiction writers now feel it is their right not only to take real individuals and put words in their mouths, and deeds in their lives, but to inhabit their very minds and spirits.

YOGI BERRA offered this sage advice: "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." And it was also the Yog who said of baseball: "Ninety per cent of this game is half mental." As a novelist, I feel the same way about fiction much of the time. Forks in the narrative road, and feeling half mental. On the other hand, the sense of creative and intellectual empowerment in writing fiction - as in all forms of art - can be seductive.

Keeping all this in mind, I would contend that our culture as a whole, and our writers of fiction, including many of the most deservedly honoured in this country and elsewhere, have indeed taken a fork in the road, without perhaps adverting to the fact. I'm going to argue that there are significant ethical issues emerging from that path taken, and that they have to do with privacy and the autonomy of a lived life.

Is privacy important? Something with ethical value attached to it? Enormous elements of cultural conditioning underlie this question, of course, and so we should at least pause to acknowledge the complex history of private life, the way in which the very idea of a sequestered space to be alone, unobserved, has been alien to many cultures, and is still today a dream or an illusion for many people, even in our own society.

But perhaps the fact that it is a dream is revealing. A room of one's own, shelter from prying eyes. In Jewish rabbinical law the notion of protection from "the unwanted gaze" was enshrined to such a degree that not only was it prohibited to look from one's window into the home of another, it was prohibited to build a window where someone might apprehend they could be overlooked in private space. The anxiety that one might be seen was judged worth assuaging by that society. In translation, the core passage reads as follows, and this, too, I offer as an epigraph to my remarks: "Even the smallest intrusion into private space by the unwanted gaze causes damage, because the injury caused by seeing cannot be measured."

Significantly, this was not a breach that required the aggrieved individual's protest, and could not even be permitted by the individual. In other words, the intrusion upon privacy was an offence against society, and how it defined itself.

We value and acknowledge, in shifting and complex ways, the importance of a private sphere to life. Some distinction between public and not-public. Whether we think of Pierre Trudeau denying the state's place in the bedrooms of the nation, or whether, post Clinton-Lewinsky, we feel a distaste for the nation intruding into the bedroom of the chief of state, there exists, or -- I'll go further -- I'll assert that there must exist, in an ethical society today, some awareness of privacy as a nurtured value.

There are dissenting views. So let me now bring into the picture the remarks of Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, who said in January of last year, with Berra-esque pith, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." What I wish to suggest is that, with all respect to Mr McNealy and others who share his opinion, we ought not to be so quick to get over it.

But first, what does McNealy mean? What gives rise to this sort of bluntness? It isn't hard to find examples, and what I will stress is how fundamentally recent these are -- or, alternatively, how the present day has dramatically accelerated and intensified elements that might have long been with us, but never before found such influence. …

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